Finding a balance between empathy and detachment is pivotal to helping others and understanding yourself.
The Sympathy Spectrum
There are many different ways to interpret sympathy and empathy and some much more learned academics have come up with various different interpretations of empathy. I would like to try and simplify it in linear terms by considering sympathy as the balance between empathy and detachment.
While empathy may be perceived as a virtue, it can be a really counterproductive mechanism if misappropriated. Likewise, being detached entirely from a situation provides no emotional insight on your counterpart’s issue, which can defend you from the darkness but prevent you from truly understanding them. To sympathise with someone is to understand and appreciate their difficulties. This is done by likening it to yours and understanding the difficulties of the human experience, navigating the difficulties of life. In this mindset you are able to objectively support them and guide them as they require in the hope that they find their way out of the darkness.
While empathy may be perceived as a virtue, it can be a really counterproductive mechanism if misappropriated.
Empathy is to feel their pain and to take part in their problem emotionally. By doing so, you are allowing their darkness to seep into your life but with no way of resolving it. Only they can resolve their issue and if you take part in this, you too will suffer. To what extent you suffer is dependent on where you fall on the spectrum and how this relates to your past experiences and your love for that person.
Why would anyone want to take on someone else’s suffering if it doesn’t reduce their suffering? This is a mechanism people employ to hide their own shadow. By taking on someone else’s emotional turmoil, which has no real bearing on your life, you can suppress your own darkness and ignore the demons you are too afraid to face.
Why do we empathise?
When you offer or try to help someone suffering, it is usually altruistic reasons, right? or perhaps love for want of a better word. But are you well enough equipped to empathise? By empathising you are offering to accept the darkness of someones suffering. If someone is holding a hot plate which is burning their hands, would you offer to hold on to it with them without really understanding why they aren't putting it down somewhere?
If someone seeks to offload their darkness on you, whether through your guilt, their manipulation or some form of unconscious communication, buying in to this is to acquire an element of their burden. You can not resolve their issue, only they can. And while you may think your friendly ear or advice will contribute to resolving their struggle, it may not be as effective as you think. Empathy will allow the darkness to sit with you and manifest itself in your mind as your own darkness until it is later resolved through recognition of where it came from. In psychological terms this could be considered a negative transference, which psychotherapists know can be a heavy burden to bear.
This is recognisable in relationships where honest communication breaks down. Sometimes it is necessary to have the same conversation in different circumstances and with different perceptions in order to portray your point to your counterpart, but the moment that there is a mismatch between the words and the intention behind them, the purveyor is not being as vulnerable as they could be and this is sensed either consciously or unconsciously by their counterpart. This dishonesty then stays with the counterpart unless they are intuitive enough to detect what is happening. The counterpart must also be conscious not to judge or to adopt the emotion, thus manifesting the darkness within them, but seek to sympathise and understand. Only then can they support their counterpart in their dark moment without being affected. This applies to matters that affect both parties, as each one perceives every situation differently. This is not an exact science, as you are not in total control of your emotions or lack thereof, but a practise of observational skills in how you respond to the situation.
Conversely, employing a defence of complete detachment will prevent one from experiencing any of the emotional turmoil out of fear of the emotions that the empathy will manifest.
The Football Fan Analogy
I notice this trait habitually exhibited by some die hard football fans. They become emotionally involved in the game, a game which is in the hands of 22 men they have likely never encountered and know very little about. By submitting their will to the action on the pitch they are able to experience the ecstasy of a goal being scored and the pain of losing. It is interesting to observe the reactions throughout the game of how they scream aggressively at underperforming players and chant nursery rhymes and war songs to encourage good play. This, I feel, is an animated example of how intrusive empathy can be.
A Personal Experience
I spent many years grasping onto the good in people and ignoring the bad. This seemed to be the ideal way to perceive the world and there was a sense of virtue to it, particularly when I noted others being critical of each other. Quelling the judgement and focusing on the light is beautiful, but ignoring the darkness can be debilitating. By not acknowledging it, you accept the person for what they are. This lowers your sense of the darkness and allows it to flood into your life. Recognition of the darkness requires action and confrontation to make your counterpart aware that their darkness is not good for you. It is up to them to decide if and how they will deal with their shadow and if they genuinely require help to confront it or a desire to resolve it.
While we may think it is a stoic act to sacrifice oneself to the cause of another, it can diminish the selfless act to a contemptuous one when the results do not reflect the emotional investment we put in.
The implicit self-interest of people prevents one from truly appreciating the sacrificed energy and emotion you may have endured.
Psychotherapists practice this dark art through transference, but it takes many years of life experience and training in order to have a controlled approach to empathy. Not to mention that the therapist must strictly maintain a professional relationship with their client and thus not become emotionally involved, they must still introject the client’s negative projections and hold them, digest them, try to understand them without reaction, all while trying to maintain their own levelheadedness on how this affects them.
In order to become more attuned to this process, we must consciously observe our interactions and internal reactions, meditate on them and try to understand what has triggered this. Once the empathy muscle has been stimulated, there is resolution to be sought, not just within your partner but within yourself.