To be empathic or not, that is the question

Janina Stajic


Monday, March 25 2013

At the excellent TedXGabriola event, held last Monday at the Haven, a mixed bag of emotional presentations got me thinking that despite its ‘shiny happy’ connotation, empathy, like most things in life, is a messy business. Channelled appropriately it has the power to radically change our society for the better helping us understand the motivations and ideas of others. If misdirected or misused, though, it can lead to societal problems and in drastic cases make us ill. Don’t believe me? Well, send a little empathy my way, and look at this idea from my fresh perspective.

First there are cases of misdirected empathy, when the media and society feel empathetic towards those who don’t deserve it (Steubenville perpetrators anyone?) and ignore those who do (Steubenville victim anyone?). Two speakers also pointed out how some Canadian have developed an ‘empathy blind spot’ when it comes to First Nations, unwilling or unable to walk in their shoes and understand, even for a moment, what it’s like to recover from the horrifying legacy of colonization. A little more empathy in this direction could help First Nations communities heal, to the benefit of every Canadian.

Then, in an incisive and brilliant presentation on ‘empathy gone wrong’, Sheila Norgate showed us that ‘extreme empathy’ can be dangerous to a woman’s health. She argued many women experience ‘empathy overkill’ and, bowing to society’s pressures to be as selfless as possible, eschew their own needs in favour of ensuring everyone else’s needs are met. By doing so, they make themselves at best totally unhappy and, at worst, deathly ill.  

So should we just stop being empathetic? Definitely not! Empathy is a powerful force and because of that, can change our lives and society for the better. We just need to make sure we’re weilding that force appropriately and, of course, saving a wee bit of it for ourselves.