There’s a Right Way and a Wrong Way to Do Empathy

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In 2007, on a date with my then-boyfriend, I was in a movie theater watching No Country for Old Men when I burst into tears.

The scene in the movie that had made me cry was this: Anton Chigurh, a psychopathic killer in pursuit of money stolen from a drug deal, stops by a gas station on his way to track down the person in possession of his cash. As Chigurh pays for the gas, the attendant behind the counter tries to make small talk: “Y’all getting any rain up your way? I seen you was from Dallas.” Sneering, Chigurh asks, “What business is it of yours where I’m from?” The bewildered look on the attendant’s face, coupled with his feeble “I didn’t mean anything by it,” turned me into a puddle. To see his embarrassment and confusion written so plainly on his face — and to feel it in my own body — was almost unbearable.

When we talk about empathy, we tend to talk about it as an unqualified good thing. Research has shown that empathy is associated with kindness and helping behaviors, while its absence, clinically referred to as psychopathy, is associated with manipulation and criminal deviance. Empathy, some scientists have concluded, allows us to function well with others and survive as a species.

But what people often don’t talk about is how even a good thing like empathy can still be emotionally draining. Empathic people who easily take on other people’s feelings can spend their days feeling overwhelmed, hurt, and heavyhearted. Empathy, in other words, can be downright stressful. So would it be fair to say that sometimes it’s unhealthy?

A paper published earlier this month in the Journal of Experimental Psychology set out to answer exactly that. According to the authors, there are “two routes” to empathy. The first is imagining how someone else might feel in a given circumstance, called “imagine-other-perspective-taking,” or IOPT. The second is actually imagining yourself in the other person’s situation, called “imagine-self-perspective-taking,” or ISPT. With IOPT, you acknowledge another person’s feelings; with ISPT, you take on that person’s feelings as your own.

For the study, the authors recruited 212 volunteers to read and then create a response to an autobiographical essay about someone’s financial struggle (they believed they were reading about the experience of another participant, but in reality the statement was written by the researchers). Some of the volunteers were told to consider the other person’s perspective throughout the process, while others were told to imagine how they would feel if they were put in the same situation; members of a control group were instructed to take neither approach, and instead focus on remaining objective. When the researchers measured the participants’ heart rates and blood pressure to determine stress levels, they found that people in the second group, the ones who engaged in ISPT, had a significantly higher threat response than the people in the first group, who engaged in IOPT only.

This can be bad news for a lot of people, and not just suckers like me who cry when fictional characters get their feelings hurt. Lead study author Michael Poulin, a psychology professor at the State University of New York at Buffalo, explained in a statement that people in emotionally demanding jobs (like professional caretakers, hospice nurses, or social workers) who adopt an ISPT approach to empathy could end up feeling chronic stress and even burnout much sooner. In fact, as Poulin notes, the potential for empathy-related burnout is becoming more and more widespread as a growing number of workers are expected to be show empathy to whomever they’re serving: “Now that we’re transitioning to such a service economy, it’s nearly everybody: technical support, complaint hotline operators, restaurant servers.”

The researchers’ conclusion? Empathy is necessary — but perhaps it’s time we start thinking about it a little differently, focusing on what the other person is going through without inserting our hypothetical selves into the same situation. And not only so that we can help workers avoid on-the-job burnout — it also helps us keep things under control in non-work-related situations, so that we’re not, say, crying hysterically when that shoe dies in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (Don’t judge.)

There’s a Right Way and a Wrong Way to Do Empathy