When it Comes to Empathy, More is Not Always Better

5 Minute Read

We hear so much about empathy these days. It’s in all the business books, in all the healthcare provider trainings, and in all conversations about improving relationships with family and friends. Empathy is having a moment. But can you have too much empathy? Is more empathy always better? Some would give an absolute “YES! More is better.” Others would say if ones is sharing empathy according to how it is defined, the ability to understand a person’s experience from their point of view, then yes, more is better. I say it takes a little bit more training and practice to get empathy right – that more is not always better, and that empathy applied incorrectly can be more of a relationship killer than builder. The key is to feel empathy, but not stay there too long and that’s the part that is most often overlooked. Empathy can quickly and easily turn into sympathy. This is written about often, yet I still find people saying they are being empathetic when really they are being sympathetic. Sympathy can be damaging to the person feeling sympathetic and to the person the sympathy is directed toward.

In our research with public school teachers we saw this play out. All 159 teachers we surveyed said they were able to connect with their students. They develop great relationships with them, and in many cases it is the relationships with the students that keep them in their jobs, despite the high stress, long hours, and low pay. But also the majority of them considered resigning. Of those surveyed, 90% indicated that they were concerned about their students’ safety and basic needs being met. We didn’t want to read too much into that. It’s entirely possible that a teacher can both be concerned about a student’s wellbeing and also focus on teaching them. So we asked about it in follow up interviews. Those who we spoke to told us how much of their personal time and money went towards their students, worrying about what is going on at home or providing school supplies. It seems that while in the classroom teachers are focused on educating but outside of the classroom they are working on overdrive to meet the needs of students and this is burning them out.

One retired teacher, who was in the classroom for over 30 years and was teacher of the year of the entire school district, recalls her first year as a public school teacher. She recalls coming to the public school teaching high school English to classes full of kids who mostly couldn’t read after having come to the district from a private elementary school. Her students affectionately dubbed her Mrs. B. Hearing Mrs. B talk about her kids, as she still calls them, it’s clear that she had a special bond with them. She cared deeply for them, they knew that and cared deeply for her. In the 80’s Mrs. B’s kids would hang around her classroom doorway between classes. This was when gangs were spreading in town and recruiting at the high schools. Mrs. B didn’t know it at the time, but later learned that her kids were making it known that Mrs. B and her classroom were off limits to any such business. In our interview, Mrs. B recalled her first day at the public school, being overwhelmed with the vast difference in students, environment, and resources. Her next door neighbor greeted her with two pieces of advice:

  1. Stay Flexible – you never know when there will be a fire alarm or an unscheduled assembly. As long as you can roll with whatever happens in your schedule, you’ll be fine.
  2. Know Your Role – you can’t take each one of these children home with you but you can help ensure they can provide a better home for themselves with the education and skills they learn in your class.

What Mrs. B’s neighbor taught her was detached compassion. It’s empathy at its best. Detached compassion allows the other person to fully experience what’s going on in their lives without becoming responsible for them. If you’ve ever regretted telling someone about something personal because now not only are you going through your problem, but you also have to comfort the person you thought would be comforting you – you’ve experienced the opposite. Instead of being swallowed up in concern, Mrs. B took action to turn her classroom into a sanctuary of learning and achievement for her students and for herself. It was no easy task getting high school students to engage in reading and literature, especially when in some cases they couldn’t read, and engaged in homework and accountability when they lived in such chaos at home. Mrs. B was able to hold the space in her classroom to be focused on what she could impact – her students’ ability to graduate and prepare for a future with a diploma in hand. Mrs. B was able to understand and have compassion for her students without it overcoming her goals for them within the role she played in their lives. Mrs. B believes that is the one thing that allowed her to stay in the classroom for over 30 years. Without that detachment, she would surely have gotten burned out with worry about things that are not in her control. Instead she was able to send a message to her students that she cared deeply for them, believed strongly in them, and would work tirelessly with them so that they can achieve their potential. This was exhausting work, and sometimes draining. But with the right supports in Mrs. B’s life, she was able to keep it right-sized. She maintained a realistic understanding of what life was like for her kids and also stayed focused on her role in improving their lives through education.

Practicing empathy in the right measure is really hard and takes lots of practice. Tuning into how it feels in an empathetic encounter can be a guide to whether there’s too little empathy or if you’re slipping into sympathy. This week we’ll be posting practices on our social media to help practice just the right amount of empathy.