The Downside of Empathy
by Dr. Joseph Burgo, PhD
During a recent dinner with my twenty-two year old son Paul, we had a discussion about the sort of experiences that make life feel meaningful. “My friends are the most important thing,” he said. “More than anything, I want them to know they can always turn to me and that I’ll always be there for them.”
Of my three children, Paul reminds me the most of myself, especially the way I was at his age, especially when he utters sentiments such as this one. He reminds me of myself when he focuses so intently on what other people need and making sure he gives it to them. We both have a tendency to over-give; we both find it difficult to ask for what we want.
In my twenties, I attended a wedding banquet at which a mutual friend toasted the bride. “Because she’s such a giving person,” said the wedding guest, “she creates an atmosphere of abundance that inspires people around her to be more generous themselves.” That toast perfectly captures my strategy in life — to give to others so that they’ll be inspired to give something in return.
I’ve always found it hard to voice my needs; instead, I try to intuit what my significant others need and then give it to them, in the hope that they will reciprocate … intuitively, empathically, without my having to ask. Although the expectation isn’t always conscious, I believe that if, I strive to satisfy my loved ones, even when it means doing things I don’t want to do, then they’ll return the favor.
A few years ago, I had the unhappy realization that I’d repeatedly put my partner’s needs ahead of my own in an unhealthy way — suggesting we build a vacation home I really didn’t want because I believed it would make him happy; suggesting we get a new dog I really didn’t want because of his prolonged grief following the death of our last one; suggesting we spend our summers in Colorado when I badly wanted to indulge my wanderlust and explore all those exotic places he’d already visited in a lifetime of career travel.
Do not misunderstand me: my partner is a sensitive, caring, and generous man. And I don’t mean to paint myself as an unusually giving person. I’m not. The truth is, I’ve operated in a confused, backwards way, pretending that I want the very same things that he does, hoping that one day he’ll intuit what I want and find a way to help me get it.
Giving to get.
It took me another year before I finally worked up the courage to tell him the truth. As I should have expected, he met me halfway, eager to find a way for us both to get what we needed.
I believe that, when you love someone, you sometimes give up what you want in order to make him or her happy; but, as Yeats once put it, too much “sacrifice can make a stone of the heart.”
I was the youngest of three children born to an absentee father and an alcoholic, profoundly unhappy mother. Her anger and depression permeated the air we breathed; my brother, sister, and I learned early on to assess her moods and stay clear when the sky turned black. With a blunt, sarcastic sense of humor, she belittled her friends behind their backs and snarled at us if we irritated her. She picked up and discarded one hobby after another, endlessly searching for fulfillment or some sense of purpose to her life. She clearly didn’t find motherhood fulfilling.
At a very young age, my older siblings escaped from the house, first to their friends and later to their precocious sex partners. Teenage pregnancy and early marriage run in my family. I grew up as the close companion to my mother. As far back as I can remember, I felt as if it were my role in life to redeem her own, to make up for the unhappiness she felt and the sense of grievance behind it: life had given her a very raw deal.
In sixth grade, I was sent for a special test battery because my teacher believed I was highly gifted. My mother returned from her conference with the testing expert and sat me down at our Formica kitchen table, oval with purple chairs. “They told me I shouldn’t say anything to you about this,” she said,“but those test results showed there’s no limit to what you can achieve when you grow up. You could even become a nuclear physicist.”
I’d known for some time that I was intelligent, but on that day I felt the weight of expectation settle onto my shoulders. Although I had only a vague idea of what it meant to be a nuclear physicist, I understood that I was expected to do something significant with my life.
Five years later, a month before I was to graduate as valedictorian of my high school class, my mother confronted me with a joint she’d found concealed within a pair of my socks. She threatened to hit me with my father’s belt because he wasn’t around to do it for her. When I told her I was too old for a beating and that if she hit me, I’d hit her back, she burst into tears, burying her face in her hands.
“I failed with your sister, I failed with your brother. If I fail with you, my whole life will have been for nothing.”
Stung with shame and guilt, I tried to console her. “I’m valedictorian of my class, Mom. I’m going to UCLA in the fall. You’re life has not been for nothing.”
Welcome to the realm of Alice Miller, whose classic book The Drama Of The Gifted Child described children who excel in life in order to redeem their parents’ narcissistic longings. During my teens and early twenties, I provoked and argued with my father, believing him to be the cause of my own misery. Years of therapy helped me realize that an overly close relationship with my self-absorbed, unfulfilled, and angry mother had much more to do with my depression.
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In my field, we say that narcissism begets narcissism – that narcissistic parents tend to produce narcissistic offspring. I refer to such people as “Children of Narcissistic Parents, Type I.” In my experience, it’s equally true that narcissism often begets hyper-empathy: self-centered, unhappy, or psychologically dangerous parents produce children who have no choice but to become acutely attuned to the emotional states of their caretakers in order to survive. We learn very quickly that any chance of getting what we need depends upon keeping our parents reasonably satisfied. In short, we learn to give in order to get.
Children of Narcissistic Parents, Type II.
As adults, Type IIs often enter helping professions; because of our upbringing, we’re well suited to areas where empathic skills are needed and prized. When I began my first internship as a trainee in psychotherapy, I felt as if I were a duck in water, able to forge strong connections with my clients right away. By that point, I’d already spent six years on my excellent analyst’s couch, so it’s not surprising that I understood the nature of the work. My empathic skills, honed through attendance to my mother’s unhappiness, helped me to succeed.
Several therapists I know come from similar backgrounds. Devoted to the care of their clients, they tend to neglect their own needs. They work long hours, teach graduate courses, and supervise trainees at community mental health centers. The best of them are loved and admired for their selfless devotion to the work. Burned out at the end of a long workday, they often drink too much at home, taking solace in oblivion. More comfortable in the role of provider, they find it hard to make themselves vulnerable and ask for what they need from their loved ones.
I suspect that such therapists share my “giving to get” strategy, even if they’re not consciously aware of it.
In social situations, Type IIs make excellent listeners because we feel uncomfortable talking about ourselves unless asked a direct question. We take an obvious interest in the strangers we meet at parties and other gatherings, skillfully drawing them out, just as we do with our clients. I can’t tell you how many evenings I’ve come home from a party knowing the entire life story of a person I just met, someone who never asked a single question in return.
I can’t help it. The moment I’m introduced to a stranger in a social situation, all my attention focuses outward, upon the other person. I attune to their facial expressions. I sense when they want to be drawn out, and when they’d rather I drop my line of questioning. I make genuinely empathic remarks when I feel that they’re needed. When these strangers experience the intensity of my interest, they often open up in surprising ways.
Sometimes they’ll pause briefly to remark, “I don’t know why I’m telling you this,” before going on to unfold a deeply painful story – about a theft of gifts from the wedding table when her son got married, about the death of his daughter to a drug overdose, about a hideous divorce from a vindictive ex. I’m a therapist, by profession and by nature, and people feel safe talking to me. I listen and I empathize, even if I don’t always want to.
That’s the downside to empathy. I suspect most people in that situation would either walk away or at least interrupt. We’ve talked about you long enough; now it’s my turn. I find that almost impossible to do. If I sense that someone wants to keep talking, for whatever reason – that they need still more interest, attention, or empathy – I can’t muscle them offstage. I continue to listen with my brow furrowed and eyes narrowed in compassion, my therapist face, my default countenance.
All the while, I’m hoping that the other person will at some point say, “Enough about me! Now I want to hear all about you.”
I’m giving to get.
Understanding this about myself, I’ve learned to avoid large parties where there are many people I don’t know. I find them too draining. As a result, I may miss out on making some new acquaintances, but I much prefer intimate conversation with dear friends, people who’ve demonstrated their interest and affection over the years, who truly want to know what’s going on in my life. I also enjoy spending time with people skilled at general conversation and who make thoughtful observations about the world we live in. I try to avoid people who talk only about themselves.
I’m also learning to ask for what I want, rather than expecting other people to read my mind. The way that I’ve operated for most of my life is unfair to me and unfair to my loved ones.
But it’s not easy to change. Ingrained personality traits don’t go away just because you’ve had your “aha” moment. They’re psychological ruts, the automatic first response, almost like a reflex. Now I pay close attention; when I catch myself doing what I always do, giving to get, I muster my courage and try to do something different.
Ask for it.
As I do, I struggle to keep resentment from my voice, the aggrieved tone that says, I shouldn’t have to tell you this; you should have figured it out for yourself. I try not to sound apologetic, either, as if there’s something wrong with asking outright for what I want. Tense with anxiety, as if I’m transgressing some unwritten law of nature, I finally say those dreaded words.
I need …