An excellent article on “How to Avoid the Empathy Trap” offers many good points.
However, I disagree with the terms and premise of “empathy trap.” In true empathy, there is no trap. There is actually no such thing as an overly empathic person. This is actually the description of a submissive person that I describe in “Pack Leader Psychology.”
Empathy is resonating emotionally with others without conscious thought. As a psychotherapist I experience this on a daily basis with patients — I become tearful when someone is truly sad or distraught, my heart warms when I feel the joy of someone coming to a peaceful sense of self-acceptance, I can feel the fear of a child new to therapy or a spouse in attachment distress or a person who has been traumatized.
However, what most people describe as empathy, and what this article describes, is really approval-seeking in a submissive/dominant relationship pattern. It notes that “overly empathic” people “have diminished ability to make decisions in their own best interest… deflect their own feelings…” This occurs because the submissive person is highly focused on the needs of others in an attempt to manipulate others into liking or at least not confronting the submissive person. This is not empathy. This is manipulation.
The submissive person believes: “I am going to care a lot about what you are thinking, feeling, doing. I am going to attune to your needs so that I can respond and cater to you, while disregarding my own needs.” This is not an “empathy trap”, this is submission.
Submissive people do this because they lack self-acceptance and good self-worth. They depend on others for their need for approval, leading them to value the emotions, thoughts and needs of others too highly.
The article states: “Highly empathic people are good at spotting the emotions of others—but not necessarily interpreting them correctly.” I disagree. Truly empathic people (not submissive) are good at interpreting the emotions of others correctly, as I can attest.
It is submissive people who don’t interpret feelings well. If one is overly attuned to the emotions of others as a means of gaining approval, the submissive person actually disregards dangerous signals from more high-power or dominant people. In the extreme, this leads to abusive relationships.
I know this because I used to be very submissive, and was in abusive relationships, because I was overly attuned to the needs of others. Now that I have achieved self-acceptance, I can truly resonate emotionally in a physical and heart-felt way without conscious thought. I can more accurately sense the dangerous predatory dominant person, as well as the more fearful, submissive person.
I attended a weeklong Mindful Self-Compassion training last year and experienced a partner meditation with a complete stranger. We were instructed to think of our partner in this silent meditation as a child, needing compassionate care and consider her from this perspective. Immediately and without conscious thought tears began to roll from my eyes. It was not a sense of sadness, just tender-hearted compassion.
I would never have been so able to resonate emotionally in the past when I was submissive. Now that I am self-accepting it occurs without any conscious thought or effort.
I am also not sure if it is possible to “teach” empathy. Perhaps caring and compassion can be taught, and this needs to be the baseline. But without self-acceptance and self-compassion, true empathy is impossible. Those who are busy anxiously seeking the approval of others are not calm enough to really allow intuitions and feelings to bubble up in their body. Their focus is on others, not on themselves. It was only when I gained self-acceptance that I was able to tune into my own experiences in a balanced way so that I could experience the emotions of others in a felt sense.
This is a very difficult experience to describe because it occurs as a deep, primal level. We lack descriptive words for this experience. I guess it must be felt.
One key is to gaining true empathy is to slow down thoughts and become present and mindful. Recognize that if your first goal is the get that person to approve of you and you are worried about their judgments, then true empathy is impossible.
If you are seeking something back emotionally from another person, you will be unlikely to be truly attuned and empathic with them. It is only in the balanced, non-striving position of wholehearted acceptance that real empathy can be experienced.