I have been told that I am extremely empathetic, which is a blessing and a curse. Empathy defined, is the capability to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from within their point of view, it is the ability to place yourself in another person’s position. Compassion and sympathy are also associated with empathy. Compassion is typically defined as an emotion that we feel when another person is in need, which motivates us to assist them. Sympathy is a feeling of care and understanding for someone.
Daniel Goleman and Paul Ekman place empathy in three categories, cognitive empathy, emotional empathy and compassionate empathy.
Cognitive empathy is the capability to understand how an individual feels and what they may be thinking. Cognitive empathy improves communication as it helps relay information the best way to reach another person. Although it improves communication, it can be disconnected with deep emotions, it doesn’t place you in a person’s shoes in a feeling sense.
Emotional empathy is the capability to share the feelings of another individual. It is described as “when you feel physically along with the other person, as though their emotions were contagious.” – Daniel Goldman
Similar to Cognitive Empathy, emotional empathy has a downside, and when an individual takes on someone else’s emotions it can lead to psychological exhaustion that leads to burnout. When you feel too much it can make even small interactions overwhelming.
Compassionate empathy goes further than just understanding others and sharing their feelings; it actually propels us to take action and assist any way we can.
What happens when you are a combination of all three all the time? What I have found out, it begins the process of enabling.
“seeing with the eyes of another, listening with the ears of another, and feeling with the heart of another.” Alfred Adler
I am not sure when it started happening, however, I looked back at different relationships that I had in the past and noticed a pattern. I thought that the way I was treating these individuals, they would want to to treat me the same. That is not true, I wasn’t clear on how I wanted to be treated, and I wasn’t respecting my inner NO that I wanted to scream, every time, I continued to empathize with the other person, even when it was hurtful or dismissive to me.
I just kept hoping that the behaviour would change, I just needed to be more empathetic, I just needed to have more patience, I needed to…..
What I really need to is, I needed to learn to connect to my own feelings and needs to not inadvertently enable someone else’s destructive, unkind and self-desruptive behaviors.
When I am so focused on helping the other person feel good, and it is always one sided, I have a false sense that I need others to feel good, for me to feel good. It also means that I am not in touch with my own needs or feelings. And then there it was……
People who lack self-compassion often exhibit a pattern of unhealthy relationships. As author Anis Qizilbash puts it, “How you treat yourself reflects how you let others treat you. If you’re unkind to yourself, you create a standard for how much abuse you accept from others and as a result end up attracting abusive and disrespectful relationships.”
I didn’t have a pattern of abusive relationships, however, maybe I just didn’t see them as that. When I am empathetic with another person, I connect to their needs, desires and deepest feelings. I am all about them, their needs, their acceptance, their requirements, and it is never reciprocated. It is never what I may need, or what I may be feeling or what impact that they are having on me. I keep my feelings to myself and do not tell them my needs and the real impact they are having on me.
“If you can’t love yourself, how in the hell you gonna love somebody else?” — RuPaul
Here’s what ends up happening…..
When I protect the other person from the real impact that they are having on me, I take away the other person’s opportunity to learn about the impact of their behaviours and choices. Simultaneously, I reinforce my own patterns. I was using empathy to avoid my own feelings, and avoiding setting a limit or avoiding conflict.
Some signs that you are enabling are:
- Do you habitually put your own needs aside to continually take care of the other person?
- Are you starting to feel resentful because you take on more than your share of responsibilities?
- Do you cover and put a positive spin on someone else’s self-destructive behaviors?
- Do you spend a lot of energy and time focusing on trying to help someone else change something that is self-sabotaging?
- Are you using self-blame as a way to avoid overt conflict with this other person?
I suppose my empathy was enhanced when my mother was dignosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2000. I got used to being completely empathetic because she did not have the ability to communicate, and my empathy had to be one-sided. There was no other solution. I am learning to have self empathy.
“To teach people how to treat you, you do not begin with them, you begin with yourself,” Wiseheart “The way you treat and believe about yourself sets the standards for others on how you demand to be treated. people learn how to treat you based on what you accept from them.”
Meaningful relationships are grounded in mutual respect and care. They assist us to broaden, learn and grow into our most empowered, effective and open-hearted selves. I am learning that I am allowed to ask for what I want, that my feelings matter, my needs matter and my dreams matter. Meaningful relationships make space for both individuals to be present, while encouraging eachother to grow into their fullest strength
Eramus, Y, (2014) Is it Empathy or enabling. https://medium.com/@yvetteerasmus/is-it-empathy-or-enabling-fb625b477448