Ashely Papa, writer & contributor for FOX News Magazine recently contacted me to psychologically weigh in on the topic of empathy. She wondered if this virtuous quality could ever cause problems within a relationship. As a therapist, the ability to be empathic is an essential skill to have in order to do your job right. So, what is empathy? It's the ability to step out of your own experience and emotionally step into and understand the way another person perceives their lives. Most people have this gift, to some degree or another, and in general it's typically considered a good quality to have. But can empathy ever go too far; especially when it comes to our romantic relationships? Ashley and I sat down to discuss the potential downside of being too empathic.
Ashely: If you're an empathic person, and even more so with your boyfriend, how might this screw up the relationship?
Dr. Robi: There is nothing wrong with being empathic. In fact, being empathic can be a great quality to have in a relationship. Having said that, if your empathy gets you to somehow forget your own needs, or set your standards too low when it comes to considering your needs in a relationship, I suppose that's when empathy can become problematic. If your extreme empathy sends the message to your partner that your needs don't matter or that you can be walked all over, this can cause some obvious problems within a relationship.
Ashely: Will you end up being less happy in the relationship?
Dr. Robi: This is an interesting question. I do think people who are empathic can be more sensitive to the feelings of those around them. This can sometimes lead to taking responsibility for other people's feeling states, when you don't have to or shouldn't. As long as the very empathic person understands you can't take complete responsibility for your partner's emotional feelings and reactions, I think empathy can be used to help navigate the relationship in a positive way.
Ashley: Are people who are empathic less likely to bring up problems and talk about their needs?
Dr. Robi: I don't know that people who are empathic are necessarily less likely to talk about their own needs. This isn't necessarily the case. However, if someone who is empathic understands bringing up certain topics can trigger arguments or issues, this could influence how they navigate discussing certain sensitive topics. Sometimes very empathic people can be conflict avoidant, not wanting to stir the pot, out of a fear of causing emotional discomfort or harm to the relationship.
Ashely: Do women tend to be naturally more empathic than men? Could this be why women are more willing to forgive and forget after relationship conflict like cheating? (Don't have stats on this, just assuming for now).
Dr. Robi: I do think in general it's safe to say women are more naturally empathic when it comes to relationships. There are always exceptions to the rule. But women tend to be more nurturing and maternal in relationships. I don't think this is why they are more forgiving of cheating, though. Women understand that men can have sex and not be emotionally attached or in love to the person they are having sex with. This probably makes certain kinds of transgressions easier to forgive and come to terms with. Men don't see women as having sex for sex. They believe women have sex to get or feel loved, which tends to be true. Again, there are always exceptions to the rule. This is one of the reasons why I think it's harder for some men to come to terms with a partner cheating. They believe the partner is cheating due to being in love, and it not just to a way to get sex.
Ashely: What do you think is being TOO empathetic? Can someone be overly empathetic?
Dr. Robi: I suppose if someone is so overly concerned about other people, it can get them to give away all of their power. They can feel more vulnerable to being judged and place more importance on what other think of them. This can lead to self-esteem issues, as well. But if someone is empathic and able to consider their own needs and not hold themselves responsible for other people's feeling states or behaviors, then being empathic, even very empathic can be a good thing.
Ashely: Are their any other common traits of people who are very empathetic? Like perhaps, low self-esteem?
Dr. Robi: People who are too empathic, might take on other people's feelings and problems and make them their own. Sometimes they feel it's their job to fix someone else. Overactive empathy can be connected or linked with being co-dependent or having poor personal boundaries. The overly empathic person can feel burnt out emotionally because they don't know how to separate themselves from other people and the emotions other people are experiencing. This can make the overly empathic person vulnerable to feeling anxious, depressed or emotionally numb.
Ashely: What advice would you give to a person, who is that empathetic, that she may be doing herself more harm in the relationship by not speaking up?
Dr. Robi: Well, first I would ask them if their empathy is serving them and the relationship well or not. If the empathy is helping them to plug into their partner's needs without forgetting about themselves and their own needs, that's great! But if their empathy is getting them to forget themselves, their needs and creating an imbalance in the relationship, that's not so great. If this overactive empathy gets them to feel like it is their job to make a person be or feel better and they are burning themselves out as a result, then obviously they are going to need to revisit the way they are plugging into other people. It's important to remember self-sacrificing oneself, in an attempt to be empathic and help others doesn't serve in the best interest of anyone involved.