How over-empathizing hurts your friendships

Our culture applauds a woman who puts others before herself. And on its face, selflessness is a very admirable trait.

But what do we do when it gets in the way of us speaking our truth?

In the book "Give it a Rest: The Case for Tough-Love Friendships", there is a chapter on the disadvantages of empathy in a friendship. The problem?

Over-empathizing with a friends' feelings can get in the way of expressing your boundaries, needs, and desires. Why? Because you don't want to make her feel bad.

We can't stress the importance of empathy enough. But not to the extent of crippling self-sacrifice. Not to the point of ongoing self-detriment. We have been taught that making ourselves small so that others can be fulfilled is just a woman’s duty. We find it admirable and call it “selflessness.”

The trouble is we carry this responsibility into our roles as friends. Even when a friend begins doing things that we’re not cool with— even when a friendship has become toxic, we find it difficult to confront her because we either:

1. justify it by empathizing with her (“I don’t want to make her uncomfortable…”); speculating about what the confrontation might do to her (“What if she gets upset and can’t bounce back…?”) or

2. elevating (and oftentimes, exaggerating) her potential discomfort over our actual discomfort.

Even when it comes to our detriment— even when the alternative is to hold our peace and accept the current dynamic, no matter how ill-fashioned— we are tempted to elevate her comfort above our own well being.

To be clear, at the heart of it, these are reasonable, even virtuous considerations.

To sacrifice our comfort for someone else’s is noble, on the surface. But what is sacrifice when it comes at the cost of our mental or emotional health? The sacrifice becomes masochism; the over-empathizing becomes self-harm.

There’s a TEDxTalk by Sheila Norgate, a visual artist, performer, and feminist. It’s titled “Trouble on the Homefront,” and in her speech, she so eloquently articulates what many of us know but struggle to explain: We can be too empathic.

Norgate says:

“A woman can be too empathic. She can be dangerously empathic. And I believe that we’ve been in training for this hazardous work since before the dead sea was even sick. Somewhere along the line, a perfectly good idea that we should all be thoughtful and considerate went straight off the rails where women and girls are concerned, and veered into oncoming traffic and there at the side of the road in the smoking twisted wreckage can be found the discarded footwear of those of us who fled the scene wearing someone else’s shoes.

How did this happen?

How did being considerate and kind and being able to put yourself in someone else’s place how did his turn into a calling? A vocation? Something women will be willing to aspire to at any cost?…. We need to make sure somehow women and girls remain in their own shoes long enough to break them in before wandering off in someone else’s. And this way is the only way empathy becomes what it is really meant to be— an inside job.”

But how do we get past it?

Here are a few ways we can stop our “over-sympathizing” from immobilizing us when it’s time to share hard truths (about our friend or about ourselves):

1.Acknowledge her feelings and perspective. Tough love doesn’t mean saying, “I don’t care how she feels. I’m gonna tell her how I feel.” Instead, it has the attitude of “I care so much about her feelings that I’ll be mindful of them as I share what’s on my heart.”

2.Lead with your own vulnerability. If you’re broaching a subject that could embarrass her, then start by commiserating. Create connection when you anticipate her feeling rejected or called out. While you have control over the tenderness and tone with which you communicate a tough truth, you can’t help how it may make her feel. Try beginning the conversation establishing common ground to minimize your fixation on how she might feel. Control what you can.

3.Stay present. Try to resist the temptation to spiral and extrapolate. Yeah, she may initially misunderstand your message, get defensive, or push back, but try not to apologize for speaking up to absolve her of discomfort. Don’t silence yourself. Check that you’re speaking with compassion, and stay in the now, not obsessing over the fear that she may leave or how she may twist the message you shared or how she might get mad. Just be present.

4.Remember what’s on the other side. When you have something to say that may not be well-received at first, try to remember the reason you are speaking up in the first place. You may want to stop the frustration you’re experiencing over being silent. You may be sitting on a truth that she needs to hear but no one else is brave enough to share it with her. You may need to say what’s on your heart for your own healing or peace of mind. You may want to speak up to put an end to how you’re being treated. Cling to that reason in the moments you are tempted to shy away.

If you find yourself over-empathizing, it's nothing to :fix". It's a sign that you are compassionate and in touch with others' feelings. But try to mindful of times you elevate your friends' feelings above your own, and find ways to voice your truth WHILE considering your friends' feelings. Trust us-- it's nice to have both.

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