The selfish side of empathy

Empathy gets a good rap – and so it should. It enables us to connect with one another on an emotional level, and feel alongside others, particularly those who may be suffering.

I’ve always considered myself a rather empathetic person. I’m a good reader of other people’s emotional states. I’m quick to imagine what it’s like to be in someone else’s shoes. I cry during every Queer Eye episode. etc.

I remember times growing up when my mum was depressed and I felt her mood encompass me. While she was sad I felt unable to feel anything else but sad. I felt so attuned to her emotionally but also made it my duty to suffer alongside her – it felt only fair.

After all, isn’t one being emotionally tone deaf to carry along on one’s merry way when someone you love is feeling such pain?

Now that I’m older, my empathy presents in the same way, however, I’m becoming increasingly sceptical if this emotional mirroring is really a helpful asset. In fact, it may be a feature that places a weighty responsibility on the other person, making them feel culpable for my responsive feelings of sadness (e.g. “if I wasn’t feeling so sad, you wouldn’t be upset). Not only that, but it may have the effect of disallowing the other to accept and experience their own emotions, faced with the added burden of having to comfort me in my allegiant gloom. 

As I become more in tune, less reactive and slightly more curious about my own emotional responses, I’ve begun questioning my automatic empathetic response. In light of much I’ve been learning about holding space for others, listening with intent to understand and allowing others to have their own emotional experiences without judgment or reparation – I wonder how this empathy might be harnessed in a more helpful way. 

I am inspired by my partner – someone with a remarkably high emotional IQ (who hasn’t needed to learn it via a swathe of mental health journals and psychology books, ala me). When he meets me in my moments of suffering and sadness, he doesn’t try to force it out of me, nor does he wilt and wallow in a similar state alongside. He recognises what I’m going through. He lets me feel it without judgment. And while he might extend to me a little more added compassion & sensitivity, he meets me from where he is. If his mood is one of contentment, he doesn’t extinguish this. And having him there, feeling full, is a comfort to me on my darker days. It’s a little reminder of what’s possible. And it makes a part of me happy to know he is happy.

Learning to respond from such a place of strength won’t come naturally to me. My regular programming is firmly engrained and I’m going to have to remain well aware of my emotional responses in the event of the suffering of those close to me, so as not to automatically react with more of the same.

Empathy is a weird thing. But with all the good that it can do (and does), I’ll just have to keep practicing and strive to do it justice.


When asked the question “Are you kind?” I think most of us would want to answer in the affirmative. We like to think of ourselves as essentially kind – not wishing ill will to others, wanting to help when we can by lending an ear, offering up a smile, a word of encouragement, a hug or a shoulder to cry on when somebody needs it.
Being good feels good and according to studies, when we perform acts of kindness, we are being true to our own nature. Research conducted by Max Planck at the Max Planck Institute showed that people begin helping others at a crazy, young age. “…a 14-month old child seeing an adult experience difficulty, such as struggling to open a door because their hands are full, will automatically attempt to help.”
But I can’t help but think, in spite of our in built tendency towards kindness, how rare it is to be truly kind without conditions. We often treat kindness as a transaction – do something kind, so we’ll get something in return. Whether it be; mowing the lawn for your lonely, elderly neighbour so they’ll leave you their vintage Bob Dylan records when they die, smiling at and tipping your bartender so they might overfill your scotch in the next round, or even holding a door open for someone and expecting a “thank you” for your efforts.
Putting it like this makes us sound bloody selfish, but I’m definitely guilty of it. As much as it feels great to help people, to connect and be compassionate, it feels crappy to be taken for granted, and to have our time and efforts wasted. There seems to be a fine line between doing no harm and taking no shit. How often do you reach out to a friend or family member who shows no reciprocity to your acts of kindness and compassion? What’s the point of turning down your subwoofer at 11pm when your neighbour only ever speaks to you when they’re complaining about noise? And why bother giving that homeless lady your spare $2 if she’s just going straight to the Bottle-O?
Being kind is hard work. It’s sometimes difficult understanding why some people even deserve it. But perhaps instead of assessing who is worthy of what level of kindness, and doling it out based on a potential reward system, we should make the act of kindness the goal in and of itself? And hey, be selfish. Do it because it makes you feel good. Because it helps you sleep better at night knowing you’ve made someone’s life a little brighter, richer or easier, even just for a moment.
Like me, writing this blog, for you.