Empathy Is Overrated
Our actions matter more than how we feel
I used to know this guy, Steven, who was very invested in thinking of himself as “an empath.” Actually, I’ve known a lot of people like that. I hang around artists, actors, and queer people who read a lot of self-help books; in those circles, identifying as an empath is common. But when I think about the misunderstood nature of empathy and the way it gets overhyped in our culture, Steven in particular always comes to mind.
Steven was a kindhearted, warm person with a rich social network. He was perceptive and fascinated by the inner lives of everyone around him. An active spreader of benevolent-seeming gossip, he always knew who was suffering, which friends were having a fight, who was about to hook up with whom. If a longstanding couple was contemplating divorce, he was the first to know. If someone got a new job or was admitted to graduate school, he was the person who showed up first to help them celebrate.
Sometimes, Steven’s emotional instincts struck me as superhuman. He once comforted me when I was in the middle of a drunken crying jag at a crowded party. I’ve never forgotten how loved and protected he made me feel in that moment. We barely knew one another at the time, yet he knew exactly what to say to quiet my sobs.
At other times, Steven’s empathy seemed to be a protective facade. Normally so good at reading people, he somehow struggled to respect when people seemed uncomfortable or didn’t want to do what he wanted to do. He would share all the deeply personal information his friends trusted him with — no matter how embarrassing or damning it was. One time I told him about a man who had been following me down the street harassing me, and Steven became so distressed I had to make him feel better about it. Instead of helping the two of us connect, his oversized empathy sometimes drove us apart.
Feeling another person’s emotions does not innately make you a good person.
Our culture is obsessed with the power of empathy. Whenever a politician strips a marginalized group of their rights, the left decries the lack of empathy. When hate groups rise up and spout vitriol, their apparent lack of…