When I was a kid, I was absolutely terrified of spiders.
I knew it wasn’t rational; most of them are so small and benign!
Worst case scenario where I lived was that a spider bit me and I was itchy for a few days. But that didn’t matter. Spiders struck fear into my heart and adrenaline through my veins, and when I saw one I insisted that someone else take care of it immediately because I CAN’T– WHAT IF IT JUMPS??
This worked until my little brother (who was a very sweet, very sensitive little boy) became afraid of spiders too.
I remember going into my brother’s room one night when he was crying, to discover that there was a spider on his wall. He was so upset, his little body wracked with sobs.
I took in his fear, and I took in the spider. I knew what was about to happen, and I suddenly became very, very calm. I killed that spider without even a trace of fear. I was just calm, and proud– proud that I had the power to put this boy out of misery.
It was almost like I was so focused on him and his distress that there was no room for my own.
It was through being a big sister that I learned no matter how upset I might be, when I focused on someone else who really needed me, all of the sudden I was basically able to perform miracles. I will forever credit my little brother for teaching me that I was a leader, because I would never have known I had the strength to kill life’s proverbial spiders, until I was called upon to put my own distress aside and come through for someone else.
Recently while reading the book Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst by Robert Sapolsky, I learned something super interesting about empathy that puts this big-sister-superpower thing into perspective.
Sapolsky explains the difference between sympathy (feeling for someone else’s pain), empathy (feeling as if you are experiencing someone else’s pain), and compassion (feeling a state of warmth and care for someone in pain), and observes that of the three, empathy is the least useful.
Empathy is generally considered a positive trait, so I found this fascinating. The ability to feel as if allows you to be connected to others, to understand and be understood, and to basically not be a sociopath. But the downside of empathy is that people who feel it often experience the suffering of others so intensely that they actually become unable to help.
In short, being empathetic is a lovely and caring quality– until it causes you to be so distressed (by the suffering of others) that you have to go tend to your own distress instead of helping them end their suffering.
Sapolsky observes that this happens most often when the person is self-focused.
When people in his studies were directed to focus on their own feelings, and then exposed to human suffering, they experienced both an increase in heart rate and a reported increase in distress and causes anxiety. Ultimately these people were far less likely to make effective choices to help the person in pain.
Interestingly though, when people were directed to focus on the other person instead of themselves, their heart rate was more likely to decrease, and they would report no distress or anxiety. These people also went on to take effective pro-social action to help the other person.
This is so fascinating to me.
People who are highly empathetic often identify with their desire to care for others, but often that same desire to care for others leads to them being overwhelmed with their own distress that they become unable to help.
Think about a parent who gets upset every time their child gets upset. Of course, this comes from a loving and caring place of wanting the child to be happy.
But if the parent becomes so upset that they can’t effectively soothe the upset child, the child will eventually learn that nobody will be there to care for her when she needs it, and also that her distress has the power to hurt others. This child might even repress her own feelings in the future, or pretend to be fine, in an effort to keep her parent calm and happy.
Clearly it would benefit this child if the parent was able to hold space for the child’s suffering without being overwhelmed by it, yes? Sapolky suggests taking it even a step further, and moving away from empathy altogether.
People who were directed to focus on cultivating compassion (a state of warmth and care toward the person in pain) instead of empathy, were even more likely to take effective actions to help another person in pain.
Put another way, cultivating a state of directed warmth and care instead of taking their suffering on as our own, we are much more likely to maintain a calm and grounded state, from which we can be of service to the suffering person.
Why does this matter? Because if you are constantly overwhelmed by anxiety and distress (and who isn’t, in today’s more-bad-news-every-minute world), it might be a useful tool to practice cultivating compassion instead of empathy for others, learning to hold space for someone else’s pain and suffering, without actually taking it on yourself.
I used to be highly emotionally reactive (read: emotionally out of control), and looking back I can see that it was because I always took on their feelings and felt it “as if” it was my own– including their pain. I had so few boundaries around this, in fact, that sometimes I couldn’t even tell which feelings were mine and which belonged to the other person!
Since then, I’ve worked hard (both personally, and in the work I help my clients do) to establish strong boundaries to “contain” empathetic feelings, but now I can see that I’ve actually moved away from empathy altogether.
Taking on the pain and suffering of others isn’t generous, loving, or empowering.
It’s actually one of the most selfish things I can think of, and it keeps us from being able to build the strong and confident self-identity that comes from being able to take effective action to help others when they need us.
Pretty lose-lose, if you ask me. Maybe it’s time we all give empathy a rest.
Imagine how much better the world would be if, instead of getting depressed and anxious and overwhelmed, we all had the calm clarity to notice when someone was suffering… and just go kill the fucking spider.
So much love,