Empathy is an important trait to apply with interpersonal relationships, but it does matter when it is used. For your and others' mental health, knowing when to be empathetic and when to set boundaries is an important way to conduct your interactions and to build a strong relationship.
Here are a few instances where empathy can get in the way of healthier relationships and more equitable actions.
- When it excuses responsibilities. It's good to be flexible and give people the benefit of the doubt, especially with small mistakes or accidents. But, when empathy is used to excuse habitual actions or problems, then it can get in the way of productivity and responsibility, especially in the workplace. For example, you should not always feel empathetic towards the employee that is always late: instead, it would be important to stress responsibility, rather than letting it slide every time. Knowing that balance is important for getting work done, especially at work.
In our own relationships, empathy can also create imbalances, especially when it excuses the actions of a significant other. One way you can see this affecting relationships is when it leads to forms of domestic violence: for many partners experiencing this, there are moments of empathy that excuse the other's harmful actions, whether physical, mental, or emotional. While that empathy can be valid at times, it can also be misplaced and not stop the cycle of harm.
- When we are empathetic towards our own biases, and forget others. It's easy to feel empathy for our best friends and beliefs, but not for strangers or topics we are uncomfortable or know less about. That's why it is important to acknowledge our own biases, and be conscientious of where we place our empathy for our own emotional and mental health. By asking questions before placing our empathy and judgment, you can have a better idea of where your emotional work is being put.
- When we replace compassion with empathy. Empathy, or feeling others' pain or emotions, is very different from giving compassion or comfort. Empathy requires a lot of emotional work, which can be exhausting for yourself. But compassion involves reaching out and providing care for someone when they are feeling sad or negative, and can lift up our own spirits in addition to others'. For example, showing up and giving company to a friend experiencing loss is much more effective and compassionate than just sharing your own experience of loss, which can leave your friend and yourself feeling sad, rather than comforted.
Knowing when empathy can get in the way of connecting with others is important, and putting other traits in action can help you and others. For more information on this and related topics, visit the Mental Health and Self-Improvement sections of our blog.
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