The Power and Weakness of Empathy

Published: 17th February 2006
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The Power and Weakness of Empathy

Having the ability to understand others deeply is a great virtue, but it can
lead to complexity in oneÆs life as well.

Empathy is often portrayed as one of the outstanding skills an individual
should have in order to be a good leader. And rightfully so: a leader who is
capable of empathizing with his or her followers is usually seen as a
transformational one because he or she knows how to make his or her
subordinates feel that they matter not just as a segment in the workplace,
but as a holistic being in various settings. An empathetic leader will be
praised for his or her "sixth" sense, because this leader will invest every
possible effort to make people feel happy in their job by placing them in
positions they can handle well, and therefore, excel in.

But empathy is not just a virtue in work-related environments: an empathetic
individual is usually dearly loved by many far outside the work setting.
Empathetic people know how to make you feel that they care and that they are
willing to do anything they can to make you happy and keep you content. And
here is where the problem creeps in: They often do that at their own
expense! A highly empathetic person may develop such a need to keep others
happy that he or she totally ignores his or her own happiness. Why? Because
he or she perceives his or her happiness as a selfish act, especially if
others will be hurt on the way toward achieving it.

An example may be in place here: An empathetic person who is attached to a
partner or team that desperately needs him or her, may realize that his or
her happiness lies somewhere else, and may even already have identified the
location, setting or person with whom happiness will be a fact, but for the
mere reason that he or she knows the despair that will be caused by leaving
the current partner or team, he or she discards his or her own chance of
emotional comfort. Yes, empathetic people may therefore be called people
pleasers. And yes, empathetic people may even be considered cowards. But is
that really the case? I guess it depends on the angle you perceive it from:
it is cowardice to fear the encounter with pain, but at the same time it is
brave to stay where you donÆt really want to be.

There are many people who stay with partners, jobs, projects, or teams that
they actually dread, simply because they dread the hurt they will cause by
leaving even more. And again, it may not even be fear for change that is
ruling here, as the empathetic person may very well be an adventurous one:
it may just be plain old fear for causing pain. Arrogant? Maybe! For one
never knows how resilient these "dependent" partners, jobs, projects or
teams may turn out to be once the empathetic person really dares to take the
big step of leaving. But that may never happen, as empathetic people keep
ciphering themselves away and keep prioritizing the needs of those who are
actually the more successful ones: the ones that know how to express their
need in order to keep the empathetic soul paralyzed.

So, what can we learn from this? Perhaps the following: empathy is a virtue,
but like any other virtue, it should be applied with appropriate moderation.
For too much understanding and empathizing may lead to personal unhappiness
for the sake of the well being of others.

Dr. Joan Marques,
Burbank, California, 7/15/04

About the Author:
Joan Marques emigrated from Suriname, South America, to California, U.S., in
1998. She holds a doctorate in Organizational Leadership, a Master's in
Business Administration, and is currently a university instructor in
Business and Management in Burbank, California. You may visit her web sites
at <> and <>

It is better to live in serene poverty than in hectic affluence. Everything
has a price. The price for nurturing your soul is turning away from
excessive stress, destruction of self-respect, and the constant strive in
lifestyle with the Joneses. But itÆs worth it.

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