Why Empathy is Harmful

Suffering happens.


It happens to everyone.


There has never been a life lived without suffering. 


It comes in different ways to different people.


Sometimes suffering is caused by others, and sometimes you cause yourself to suffer.  Sometimes both at the same time.


Often it’s hard to know the difference.


A student in my recent meditation course described a condition in which she takes on the pain of others.  


During the class discussion, it came to light that nearly everyone in the course experiences this to differing degrees. 


Sympathy, Wisdom, and Compassion


You come into this world to care and be cared for.


You are also here to be who you are as your unique self, with all of your own individual limitations and gifts.


Because you are human you have gifts of your soul which are the ground for compassion and caring.


One of your gifts is sympathy.


Sympathy has become a misunderstood word. 


Sympathy is an act of imagination which is the foundation of compassion and caring. 


When you stub your toe, you know how it feels.  When you see someone else stub his toe, you don’t need to take on his pain to know that it hurts.  You feel compassion for someone experiencing that pain.


Your ability to imagine how it feels, sympathy, allows you to offer advice or comfort to someone else.  This is your natural response to seeing others in pain.


The development of your natural gift of sympathy, which increases as you grow older, allows you to acknowledge and feel compassion for many kinds of suffering that you may never have experienced directly yourself. 


This is another human gift.  You have the ability to learn from others even when you have not had direct experience. 


You learn to avoid mistakes in your life when others who have made them teach you about their experiences that caused them suffering. 


This is called wisdom – the ability to learn from others without the necessity of direct experience. 


Sympathy is the ground of wisdom.


It is the gift of sympathy that makes you wise, and wisdom makes your acts of comfort and caring possible.


The Anatomy of Empathy


Sympathy is an act of your imagination – the ground of compassion.


Empathy is a physical act.


Empathy involves taking the painful experiences, thoughts, or feelings of others into your body.


When you take on another’s pain, even with the best of intentions -- to help or comfort --  it’s harmful. 


When you take pain into yourself, you harm yourself. 


To understand this, it helps to understand the anatomy of it.


Here’s how it works:


Everything Enters Your Body


Your body is permeable. Sensations pass into your body through your organs of perception.  Sights, sounds, and smells enter your body through your eyes, ears, and nose.  Your tongue tastes things that have come into your mouth, and whatever you know by touching enters your body through your skin. 


Everything that you know, you know through your organs of perception, (eyes, ears, etc.).


Everything that you experience enters your body and leaves an impression. 


This includes ideas because ideas are communicated through words. Words are sound forms which enter your body through your ears, and when you pay close attention, through your skin as well.  Think of music, or someone speaking close to you. You feel the words or the music, even when they are whispered or softly played, through your skin as well as your ears.


Impressions left in your body by all of your experiences are the basis of your memory.


Memory is the ground of experience. 


Your memories are part of the life of your mind because they are part of the life of your body.  Your body is filled with impressions left by all of the sensory experiences you have ever had.


Your mind takes all of these sensations, orders them, makes sense of them, and creates memories. 


Your memories make it possible for you to identify things, to form an understanding of them, and make decisions about attitudes you have toward your experiences.  In turn, your decisions and attitudes inform the actions you will take toward things that occur in the future.


Pain is Exhausting and Depleting


You know from your experience that being in pain is exhausting and depleting. 


Emotional pain causes physical exhaustion, and physical pain causes emotional exhaustion.


That’s why people who are grieving feel as if they’ve been hit by a truck.


People who have been hit by a truck and are recovering from physical injuries feel emotionally depressed and depleted.


When you take on the pain of another, you physically overload yourself with painful impressions. 


This overwhelms your body, and confuses and troubles your mind. 


A confused mind destabilizes your ability to identify, order, remember, and understand your experiences. This paralyzes your ability to make decisions and take action.


All of this confusion creates anxiety.  Anxiety creates chemicals and hormones that negatively affect your physical health.


Caring for yourself is the most effective foundation for caring for others.


You cannot care for someone else or help someone else if you are exhausted and depleted.


Empathy, the taking on of the pain and suffering of others, harms your body and mind by overwhelming and depleting you.


By not physically taking on the pain of others, you nourish your stamina, which is what allows you to help others. You keep yourself from bodily and mental overwhelm and confusion – a confusion that impairs your ability to think and act wisely both toward yourself, and in aid of others.


It is not necessary to take pain into your body in order to give loving care and comfort to someone who is suffering.  Your gifts of wisdom and compassion allow you to do this effectively.


Conscious or Unconscious


There were people in the class who were aware that they have been taking on the pain of others.  There were also those who didn't fully realize they had been doing this until their classmates began speaking.


For those who were doing it unconsciously, as soon as they realized this is possible, they recognized it in themselves.  And they recognized the anxiety, confusion, and depletion it has been causing.


What everyone was aware of, whether their empathic actions were conscious or unconscious, is that the practices of yoga and meditation I teach have shifted this harmful habit within a short time.


Nourishing Practices

The practices I teach are practices that nourish you.  They are practices that work anatomically to prevent the overwhelm and depletion that destabilize your body and confuse your mind. 


These are practices for your mind, body, and breath. They are simple, gentle, and effective.  Anyone can do them.  And they can be yours if you wish. 


Contact me for more information at kim@yourmindbodybreath.com