The Paradox of Empathy

The problem with empathy is that too much of it is bad, and too little of it is bad.

Too little empathy, and you're an uncaring sociopath who doesn't care about others' wellbeing.

Empathy is great when it comes to doing nice things for nice people when everything's going well. That's the easy scenario.

Too much empathy when you're dealing with people acting poorly, however, and you care so much about others' wellbeing that you only examine the problem in a shallow fashion, and will avoid doing what appear at first to be "mean" things that are better for the other person in the long-term, to avoid causing short-term pain.

In many ways, too much empathy is selfish.

Because you're not really being nice. You're avoiding causing yourself pain just as much as you're avoiding causing the other person pain. There's very little altruism involved here.

In addiction counseling, for example, you're not in the role of helper if you're doing this - you're in the role of enabler.

That's a hard lesson to learn. Especially if you consider yourself to be a good, noble and empathic person. You need to examine the long-term consequences, not just the short-term ones.

About the author

Simon Cooke is an occasional video game developer, ex-freelance journalist, screenwriter, film-maker, musician, and software engineer in Seattle, WA.

The views posted on this blog are his and his alone, and have no relation to anything he's working on, his employer, or anything else and are not an official statement of any kind by them (and barely even one by him most of the time).

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