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Can You Have Too Much Empathy?

Ann Spangler
Ann Spangler
2017 17 Aug

An image of an annoyed-looking woman with smoke coming out of her ears.

I have a friend whose mother suffers from chronic anxiety. Always a worrier, her mom has grown more and more anxious with the years. Her mother’s doctor recently prescribed an anti-anxiety drug, which she adamantly refuses to take. Because her mother’s anxiety has provoked so many problems within the family, my friend recently quipped that if her mother won’t take the pills then the rest of the family will have to—so they can stay calm enough to deal with her anxiety. My friend’s tongue-in-cheek comment reveals something important about human dynamics. Many of us are easily infected by each other’s emotional weaknesses. Sometimes the weakest member of a family is the one who exerts the strongest influence.

Take, for example, the child who easily whines and cries. Of course there’s nothing wrong with crying, unless it becomes habitual or a method for children to get their way. As mothers, many of us are good at empathy. We understand and sympathize with our children’s weaknesses. But sometimes our empathy can be an obstacle that makes it harder for them to grow up.

Edwin Friedman, a family therapist and leadership consultant, pointed out that people tend to mature more when the leader of an organization adapts toward strength rather than weakness. In that context, Friedman considered empathy an adaptation toward weakness. He counseled leaders to challenge those they lead as a way to help them grow and mature. As Friedman pointed out, there are some people whose real need is to not have their need fulfilled.

Perhaps that’s why we don’t always experience God being as empathetic as we might like. He knows exactly how we need to be challenged in order to become the kind of people who can lead others toward peace.