The Dark Side of Having Empathy

Welcome back, Psych2Goers. Would you consider yourself a sympathetic person? Maybe you might even describe yourself as an empathetic person. Having empathy means that you are able to not only understand, but to share the feelings of another person. Putting yourself in another person’s shoes, or, having empathy helps you gain new perspective on those you care about. Maybe you are able to understand difficult emotions or situations by stopping to think, “How would I feel if I were this person right now?” While this is an incredible skill to have, that no doubt makes you a more understanding and considerate person to those around you.

However, there is a certain darker side to empathy that you may not necessarily be familiar with. While sharing in others emotions and being present enough to understand how they feel allows you to experience things from a new point of view, it may also be something others may look to exploit, or even overwhelm you all at once if you’re a particularly empathetic person.

Also, the information in this article is not intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. All content, including text, graphics, images, and information, contained in this article is for general information purposes only and does not replace a consultation with your own doctor/health professional.

With that in mind, let’s delve into the dark side of having empathy.

1. Too much empathy can be selfish

Have you ever thought about the possibility that empathy under certain situations may make you more selfish than selfless? For some certain individuals, that could very well be the case. The feeling of empathy for some may be a bit intoxicating at times. When an overlyempathetic individual uses empathy as a tool for their own self pleasure instead of situationally to understand the people around them, they may become what some may refer to as “vampiristic empathy” (Lambert, 2019).

Vampiristic empathy is an extreme expression and form of empathy that is characterized by the way in which another person tends to manipulate or control someone else’s life in order to live through that person (Lambert, 2019). While this can be with warm intentions, such as wanting to help a sibling or friend by coaching them through something in exactly the way you want to see them succeed. However, too much empathy can cause you to lose sight of helping the other person, and more about you making the best outcome that you want to see in them. Empathy is best utilized selflessly when you are actively listening and helping those around you, and utilizing your care to feel other people’s emotions and respect them.

If you are concerned about being on the receiving end of someone who may be using vampiristic empathy, you may have ocassional negative gut feelings about taking advice or telling them about your accomplishments. If you feel as though the other person may be trying to always push you in a direction, regardless of how confident you are, it may be an example of vampiristic empathy.

2. Dark Empaths

If you’ve ever heard of an empath before, then you may already be partially familiar with how dark empaths function. A dark empath, is, quite literally, the dark side of empathy that not a lot of people may know about. A dark empath is someone who shares the emotional capacity to feel and exhibit empathetic behavior, but also has a wide number of negative traits and intentions, who are able to seek out what you feel want want, and potentially use it against you (Mitchell, 2021).

When we talk about misuse of empathy, whether it’s accidentally or unintentionally using empathy as a way to make yourself feel better instead of using it to relate to someone else, you may notice that empathy has more to do with it than just feeling how someone else does. By processing their emotions and ideals in your head, you can get a better feel of what it’s like to be that person, especially if you become in tune with more of the psychological factors behind empathy. When it comes to dark empaths, this may be a weapon that some may seek to use on others in order to put them into compromising situations, or taking control of them. Being able to recognize how dark empaths tend to take control of others, whether its through false promises, or lying about their experience, trust, or genuine good nature in order to get closer to what they want, you can protect yourself and be aware when others may be stepping into your shoes to walk you into a bad direction.

A telltale sign that you may be interacting with a dark empath is if a majority of your interactions with them leave you feeling burned out, and them feeling significantly better. If conversation with them always tends to drain you and recharge them through forcing you to do things that you are uncomfortable with, or pushing you into unwinnable situations that tend to backfire, you may be experiencing the manipulation of a dark empath.

3. Empathy related burnout

While mental or physical burnout can happen to almost anyone, people who constantly empathize with others may find that it can take a large amount of mental capacity in order to constantly be placing themselves in difficult situations in which they need to understand the difficult and sometimes traumatic emotions or experiences of others. While some studies may debate about how burnout affects different types of people under different types of circumstances, ranging from medical students who may report that having empathy can help lower their rate of burnout, and other studies that compare and contrast the different criteria under which burnout can occur, one thing remains certain (Desmarais et al., 2017), (Altmann & Roth, 2020). Burnout and empathy aren’t always going to go hand in hand. If you find that empathy helps you understand the people who need you the most, leaving you and your loved ones with positive feelings, then empathy may help you connect and enrich the lives of others. Conversely, if you’re constantly stressed, feeling as though you’re being pressured into caring or understanding the struggles of others, then you may be stretching yourself too thin.

Taking time to recognize how your special relationships with others play out may help you make sound decisions in deciding which ones deserve that little bit of extra time and attention, and which ones may be leaving you feeling emotionally drained and tired at the end of the day.

If you find yourself being the “mom” friend of the people around you all the time because you can understand their personalities so well, or people tend to flock to you for comfort, it may show that you have an incredible amount of lovable skills and empathy. But when you find yourself unable to take care of your own wants or needs, or tend to put yourself into difficult situations to please others, only finding yourself alone or too tired to carry on, you may be experiencing empathy related burnout.

Concluding Remarks

Thank you so much Psych2Goers for reading this article, and for all of your love and support. Even just a few clicks on our articles or videos help us make psychology more freely accessible for people all around the world. Please feel free to share in the comments below what you thought about the article, and about your personalized experiences with showing others empathy, or how it feels to receive empathy in return. We truly love and appreciate all your feedback, and would love to engage with you in the comments below, and feel free to check out our video in the link below for more information regarding empathy in its relationship and differences with sympathy!

If you can relate to any of these signs, please do not take this feedback as an attack on your character.  This article was meant to be a self-improvement guide for those of you who have been feeling a little stuck.

Further viewing:

References:

Altmann, T., & Roth, M. (2020, October 24). The risk of empathy: Longitudinal Associations between empathy and Burnout. Taylor & Francis Online. Retrieved from https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/08870446.2020.1838521

Desmarais, N., Harscher, H. von, Dollinger, R., Grossman, S., & Aldana, S. (2017, September 28). The impact of empathy on burnout in medical students: New findings. Taylor & Francis Online. Retrieved from https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/13548506.2017.1374545

Lambert, J. (2019, April 12). Does empathy have a dark side? NPR. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2019/04/12/712682406/does-empathy-have-a-dark-side

Mitchell, M. (2021, January 21). 5 Signs of a Dark Empath – The Most Dangerous Personality Type. YouTube. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tl20Ke2Y58g

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