The perils of positivity
I often talk in this space about the power of empathy for adding good to our lives - how it can help us connect with others on a personal level, and even sometimes on a professional one. The word has a positive connotation; calling someone "empathetic" is compliment. It's a quality we want in our doctors, teachers and caregivers. But how does it impact our personal mental state? And can we have too much of a good thing when it comes to empathy?
A few recent studies and articles have me thinking a lot about this lately. The first is this piece from Scientific American: Too Much Emotional Intelligence Is a Bad Thing. It highlights recent research suggesting that people who are more in tune with others' feelings also tend to experience more stress than the average person. In the study, two psychologists from the Frankfurt School of Finance and Management in Germany tested 166 male students on their emotional intelligence (a catchall term for one's ability to identify, understand and adjust to feelings), asking them to match feelings to facial expressions, among other things. Then, the students had to give a talk in front of a panel of stone-faced judges. The psychologists measured how much cortisol - a stress hormone - was in the subjects' saliva before and after, and those who rated as more emotionally intelligent experienced more stress during the talk and took longer to calm down afterward.
From a personal perspective, this doesn't surprise me at all. I've always been extremely sensitive to others' feelings (or my perception of them, at least) and I have definitely felt the weight of that on many occasions. It's very interesting to see it play out in research like this. The SA piece goes on to refer to other research suggesting people with a lot of empathy are also more prone to depression and anxiety...great!
Though that may help explain this other piece of recent research, which suggests that people who consider themselves generally happy and positive tend to overestimate how empathetic they are.
So, it's a trade-off. One that many would argue is well worth it. And there's another reason not to be too glum about the occasional bad feelings that come from too much empathy. Negative emotions, it turns out, are actually good for your mental health. The trick is to accept those emotions, rather than suppressing them.
So, yes, sometimes empathy comes with drawbacks, especially among those of us who are especially tuned in. But being happy go lucky isn't all it's cracked up to be either, apparently!
One final note: I do tend to stick to journalistic endeavors with this newsletter, but if anyone reading this identifies with feeling overwhelmed by perhaps being a bit too empathetic, I want to recommend highlysensitiveperson.net. There you'll find an interesting blog and podcast with interviews and general discussions about what it's like to be extra sensitive to the world - which often includes an overabundance of empathy.