The Empathy Trap

The Empathy Trap

Most of us appreciate the feeling of being heard and understood, of someone else acknowledging what’s happening for us especially in difficult times. Perhaps it harks back to that old saying “a problem shared is a problem halved”. Having someone show us empathy can help us to feel cared for, that we’re part of a group. Feeling cared for and belonging are important factors in helping us to be emotionally resilient people. A world with empathy is nurturing and supportive. Sympathy and compassion are also important to healthy adult relationships too. Empathy, sympathy and compassion are all similar but different!

An emotionally balanced person will have a mix of all three and know when and how to express which is appropriate. Let’s have a quick look at the definitions of all three –

Empathy – the ability to understand and share the feelings of another from their perspective.

Sympathy – feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else’s misfortune.

Compassion – understanding the suffering of others and wanting to do something about it.


Receiving and expressing empathy is a normal part of human relationships.

However like most things too little or too much empathy can create difficulties. Too little can be harmful to those around us and a barrier to us building good healthy relationships with others and too much can have us taking on the world’s woes, wearing us down and overwhelming us with burdens that aren’t ours to shoulder.

Too little empathy

Have you ever met a person who can’t (or doesn’t want to) understand anyone else’s feelings, someone who trivialises your genuine distress by either not noticing at all or steamrollering over you with a hurtful throwaway comment a long the lines of “oh stop being so sensitive” or “never mind you’ll get over it” or “get a grip, build a bridge”.

If you find yourself on the end of this sort of comment and you feel you can, then gently point out that you find that response hurtful and not very useful.

If you find yourself dishing out that sort of trivialising comment on a regular basis then maybe it’s time to start work on your empathy skills, on really being able to share the feelings of others and view things from their perspective.


Coach Michael Sahota suggests the following steps to help build empathy

See their World – stop and take the time to think about what the person is saying, to try to understand the impact for them and see it from their point of view.

Appreciate them as Human Beings and make no judgement – We judge to discount the person’s situation so that we can avoid experiencing their pain. For us to express empathy, we need to see the person as a human being – someone who is valuable in their own right.

Understand Feelings – theirs and our own. We need to get in touch with our own emotions in order to truly connect with another person’s feelings. A common reason to skip this element of empathy is that we don’t have our own emotions sorted out. So, you may need to do some of your own mental housekeeping in order to be in a place where you can acknowledge other peoples feelings.

Communicate Understanding – The final element is that someone feels as though they are understood – that they are seen and heard. If you don’t know what to say here is a great phrase that can be used verbatim or as a starting point: “It sounds like you are in a hard place now. Tell me more about it.”


Too much empathy

If you are someone who feels others’ emotions as strongly as your own you may need to take care not to become swamped with others’ problems while pushing your own needs and wellbeing to the back burner. Not protecting yourself may result in you becoming emotionally and physically exhausted, possibly to the point of resentment. Rather than allowing you to be a helpful and supportive friend, over doing the empathy can leave you run down, anxious and even depressed.

Finding the balance between too much and too little will be different for everyone. It will depend on our individual emotional makeup and resources of time and energy.

The art is to strike a balance between the other person’s feelings and needs and our own. Looking after ourselves and exercising some self-care is not an act of selfishness, it’s a healthy way to build resilience and wellbeing. When we are emotionally healthy we can be the best possible person we can be for others and ourselves: it’s a win – win for everybody.

How do you know if you are overdoing the empathy? If you find yourself spending more time thinking about your partners or friends feelings than your own or you get so caught up in the feelings of someone you love that the feelings seem to become your own and you constantly put others before yourself, then it’s time to take a gentle step back. When you find yourself hurtling down the empathy path, stop! Take a breath and identify what you’re feeling and what you need. It helps if you are willing to take some time to explore and meet your own needs. Then you can truly be there for others in need in an emotionally healthy way.

Instead of getting caught up in the pain and awfulness of a situation maybe you could try a compassionate approach saying something like “this sounds awful, is there anything I can do for you”?

Kitten placing paw on other kitten

It takes emotional intelligence to use empathy, sympathy and compassion well.

Once you understand your needs, you can make a conscious decision about how much time, energy and emotion to give to another and how much to keep for yourself. Nurturing relationships with people who are mindful of the needs of others helps maintain a healthy give and take relationship. If the traffic is all one way then you might want to re-evaluate the relationship. The best relationships are ones where the love, support and help go both ways.

Jan Aitken Life Coach

Jan Aitken is a qualified Life Coach based in Dunedin. With over 8 years of experience Jan is the coach to help propel you forward and live the life you imagine.

Jan Aitken is a qualified Life Coach based in Dunedin. With over 9 years of experience Jan is the coach to help propel you forward and live the life you imagine.


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