Too Much Empathy = Too Little Action?

When people mistake therapy for real life.

Too Much Empathy = Too Little Action?

I’m convinced the pendulum has swung too far and we need to come back to reality. As powerful as is empathizing with others in their distress, I’m convinced that for some people, they can get stuck wanting constant empathy and rejecting accountability.

As a psychotherapist, empathizing with the pain of my clients is an intrinsic part of the treatment process. For most people in distress, the emotional safety gained by the presence of empathy–rather than judgment or problem solving– provides a secure base from which they can explore more risky propositions about the need to change. In therapy, until the client feels heard and accepted, they don’t feel safe. And until they feel safe, they can’t take the risk of making life changes.

But therapy is not real life. Therapy is an intensely emotionally corrective experience with a highly trained clinician at one end and a motivated client at the other end. The point of therapy is to equip the client for real life, not for a life of therapy.

But popular culture, and perhaps campus and social media cultures in particular, seem to have turned empathy into an expectation of life. With many people in these venues, I see a hypervigilance that privileges offense, reactiveness, counter attacks, and a mob mentality if empathy is not ubiquitous. It is as if too many people have spent too much time in the office of a therapist and start expecting everyone to act like a paid therapist on a lifelong contract.

One of the features of this expectation for 24/7 empathy on demand is the offense and even rage directed at people who point out ways that the easily offended could make course corrections. The easily offended react defensively to suggestions that change and accountability are needed for progress. They often accuse post-empathetic people of “being judgmental”, “blaming the victim” or even “racism”. Often, the easily offended marshal battalions of other emotional volatile people to gang up on the voice for change in order to shame or intimidate that voice into silence. They sometimes implicitly invoke “Victim Privilege” as the trump card for all issues.

In the book, The Coddling of the American Mind by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathon Haidt, the authors point out how far the pendulum has swung toward empathy without accountability. Predictably, the emotionally reactive pounced on the authors without many logical or coherent arguments but instead threw a temper tantrum accusing the pair of a myriad of personal shortcomings. Amusingly, this very reaction to their call for action and accountability is proof of the legitimacy of their thesis.

Don’t get me wrong. I am NOT saying that in the “real world” empathy is useless or harmful. It is incredibly useful and helpful.

And as parents, spouses, friends, and as leaders of institutions, we need to bring the pendulum back to the center. We need to see the value of empathy, and at the same time understand the time-limited value of these emotional group hugs. The purpose of social support is to offer possibilities for change and progress along with accountability on that journey.

Outside the therapist’s office, people should expect less navel gazing and more looking forward and upward. Less safety and more risk. Less support and more adventure. Less about rights and more about responsibility. Less self-centeredness and more service. Less futility and more meaning. More progress forward.

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