According to Wikipedia, Empathy is defined as the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from within the other person’s frame of reference. In fact, the term “Empath” is derived from the word Empathy to describe a person who can sense others’ emotions; someone who is empathic.
Showing empathy towards others who are suffering or who cannot help themselves plays a critical role within the context of humanity.
Empathy is the foundation of organizations that help children with cancer, save mistreated animals, and supply food to poverty-stricken families. It’s why friendly neighbors shovel the sidewalks of the elderly during inclement weather and offer to help physically-challenged shoppers with their groceries.
It’s the reason we band together in the wake of tragedies to help the injured and those in need of shelter and respite.
The human capacity for empathy is one of the greatest gifts we can experience as a race.
On the other hand, unbridled empathy and kindness can have far-reaching consequences. In the same way that pathological intentions can harm other people, so can “pathological altruism”, which is sincere efforts to help others that instead harms others or oneself. It is often caused by cognitive and/or emotional biases that blind people to the potentially harmful consequences of their decisions and actions.
It can also be the result of psychological manipulation, in which case it’s even more important to judge reactions based on facts and history instead of hyper-sensitivity or baseless feelings of guilt in the heat of the moment.
For example, if a romantic partner habitually commits the same relationship crimes and tells you it’s due to their having been abused as a child or the fact that their parents divorced when they were six years old, if you’re empathic, you may give your partner the benefit of the doubt because you are able to sympathize with their so-called dreadful childhood experiences. You want to help ease their suffering by being flexible and understanding.
Should you end the relationship, thereby making it appear you are indifferent to their “suffering”? Or take the “empathic” approach, rationalizing and forgiving their actions?
Choosing whether to forgive a partner’s infidelity is a personal choice. However, when doing so, there should be a rational reflection on the long-term consequences of such a decision, especially if it’s something that’s become a pattern.
In this example, forgiving a habitual cheater may not seem harmful on the surface, but various circumstances should be considered, not what temporarily makes us feel good and not what is being promoted by the cheater, with their own self-serving interests in mind. For instance:
- Do you have children who are aware of the cheating, thereby receiving the impression that cheating is forgivable and/or a normal element of committed relationships?
- As a consequence of the cheating, do you use all your spare time playing detective instead of activities that could enhance your quality of life or that you could spend with people you love?
- Have you become an emotional wreck, barely able to function at work or stay focused, perhaps having found it necessary to go on medications to dull the ever-present feelings of rejection and betrayal?
- Are you violating your own moral principles of fairness and justice to benefit your cheating partner, for whom you feel empathy?
Extending empathy and kindness in the face of these detrimental consequences is altruism gone awry.
Altruism in its true sense should be intended to help the person for whom you feel empathy, as opposed to supporting them in continuing their wrongdoings while wrecking your own life and perhaps others whom you care for.
What To Do Instead
In response to the above scenario, you might consider leaving the person who cheated to show them that you respect yourself too much to tolerate such betrayal and letting them experience the consequences of their choices by holding them accountable.
In the moment, it may feel natural to offer understanding and flexibility in regards to another’s “human transgressions”. This approach may have its place in certain situations, but when dealing with repeat offenders, it’s important to recognize when one’s empathy and altruistic inclinations result in an unhealthy focus on the transgressor to the detriment of one’s own needs.
Altruism and empathy are misdirected when people falsely believe that they caused another’s offenses, or erringly believe that they have the means to relieve the person’s “suffering”. Examples of this would be when a devoted partner believes their weight gain or new hairstyle is the root of their partner’s infidelities or that if they change their hair color, manner of dress, or agree to outrageous activities in the bedroom, then their partner “won’t have to cheat anymore”.
Other examples would be giving too much food to an obese child or lying to a spouse’s boss to hide their alcoholism. In such instances, the object of empathy, and even the altruist are harmed in ways that may not be evident without rationally reflecting on long-term consequences of seemingly empathic decisions. The obese child could develop an insulin resistance, resulting in Type-2 diabetes, and the alcoholic spouse could be fired, resulting in the loss of the family’s home.
Ultimately, these altruistic inclinations are exploited by manipulative people, such as narcissists and other Cluster-B disordered individuals, to gain benefits at the expense of others. In fact, narcissists are infamous for exploiting empathic and altruistic people.
Hence, when you are faced with the dilemma of wanting to appear empathetic, or when every fiber of your being wants to help a person for whom you feel empathy, take a moment to think about the long-standing consequences to ensure your decisions aren’t compulsive, potentially devastating, or helping the narcissist in your life to achieve their self-centered agendas.
References  Empathy. (n.d.). Retrieved November 08, 2017, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Empathy  Pathological altruism. (n.d.). Retrieved November 09, 2017, from http://en.metapedia.org/wiki/Pathological_altruis