I was having a discussion with friends on the weekend. One of my friends said that when she was stressed, she was the opposite of who she normally is. Namely when she gets stressed, she becomes apathetic. Some of my friends said they had heard the same about themselves. They said they felt they were lacking empathy especially in the workplace. They were told by others should be more empathic with the people around them. It made me ask myself if empathy was really always the best policy? And I questioned if perhaps the opposite could be true – is there a thing with too much empathy?
Empathy is defined as “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another”. Others generally define empathy as the ability to sense other people’s emotions, coupled with the ability to imagine what someone else might be thinking or feeling. Apathy on the other hand is somewhat the opposite, it is the lack of interest, enthusiasm, or concern. Please do note in this article I am not discussing the long-term effects of apathy and it’s connection to mental health.
I often get told I am too nice, and too understanding in a workplace setting. That in order to get things done I should be more harsh, more upfront and less considerate of everyone else’s feelings. To my surprise, when forcing myself to be less emphatic and rather being less understanding has enabled me to get things done where I thought I couldn’t. Some people seemed to react better to a less understanding version of me which made me uncomfortable. I like being empathic because it is in my true nature. Being any different makes me feel uncomfortable and well, just wrong. I wonder if for people that are generally less empathetic by nature, if they feel the same way being empathic.
In the recent years, there has been a big cry for empathy and a large spotlight shone on leadership where empathy was one of the driving factors. Just look at my prime minister Jacinda Arden, who has been highlighted many times for her skill in leading with empathy during the Christchurch shooting. During Covid times, women in politics were praised for better leadership as it was said they were leading with more empathy and understanding for the good for all (for example read this article by NBC). When we are empathic, the focus on others comes into the limelight. How much we consideration is put into how others might feel and what they may be going through. As a coach, you are told empathic is good, but not compassionate. As long as you do not take other feelings of people as your own, you do NOT start feeling what they feel that is good. You are allowed to have understanding what they are going through but not more.
I wonder if that is one of the things that makes being apathetic beneficial. Like doctors, if they were also empathic with how much pain they would cause you, I am not sure all surgeons would be considered good surgeons. Or at times, I get confronted with friends who do not understand me and that makes me more aware of my circumstances. For example if a friend asks me honestly: Why would you do that? It helps me gain perspective on the situation. Her apathy for my situation (I have had friends say: You are the one who is being a d***), has helped me question myself more honestly and reflect on myself in a way that enables growth. I would argue apathy can at times lead to change that it needed, rather than wanted.
I am also not sure empathy is a thing that can be taught. There are a lot of things we are told to be, just because people tell us to be more empathic, doesn’t mean we can be. I remember reading about the Rejection Therapy – A guy who put himself in situations he could get rejected in so he would learn to become more resilient towards it. What he noticed was it hurt less when he asked people: Why Not? after they rejected him. For example, if he asked someone for 20 dollars and they said no, if he asked them: Why Not? They would have valuable answers that made him feel like he could understand how they felt and it had nothing to do with him. He became empathic towards their situation and thus did not feel rejected. I wonder if that’s what would work for people who would like to be more empathetic. If you ask yourself why people act a certain way, it will increase understanding and you will feel more connected to them.
Another way to feel more connected to people is to find out what you have in common with them. You usually have more in common with people that we all would like to admit. If it is similar relationships to our parents, our fears of losing face or not succeeding in life, worries about the future or the way we feel about family. We tend to focus on differences rather than what we have in common. You can feel more empathy if you find similarities with the person across from you.
Nonetheless, I would like to highlight that no one should feel like they should be more of something or less of something. Only work on yourself if it is something that you want to change about yourself and don’t let other people force you into being different than you are. That’s something to be apathetic about.