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Are you an empathetic person? This is how you keep yourself from sympathizing too much

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Empathy means being able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. It’s a quality that enriches your life, but if you’re very empathetic, the world can be overwhelming. Perhaps you’d like to be a bit more indifferent – but is that possible, without losing your empathy? (Yes, it is. And here’s how.) 

Perhaps it’s the most beautiful quality

Empathy is the ability to imagine what someone else is feeling, and it might be the best human quality. Empathy strengthens your connection with others, it allows us to have valuable conversations and makes us help people when they need it. 

The more empathetic you are, the easier it is for you to imagine what it’s like to be in someone else’s shoes. Sometimes, it can be too much for you. Especially in times when, through social media, lots of personal stories enter your life. There’s so much hurt in the world, how can we not be overwhelmed by all that? 

‘You can’t let all that get to you,’ people say. ‘You can’t solve all the problems in the world.’ That’s easy for them to say, because, if you’re very empathetic, you can’t turn it off. And maybe you don’t want to. But if it feels like you’re flooded with empathy sometimes, this might help. 

1. Time for action

Empathy is a feeling that urges you to act. And in the end, the best way to handle that is: listen to your feelings. If you let people’s difficult situations get to you, try to act on it. Bring them some soup, send them a postcard. 

2. Change your perspective

It also helps to think of the downsides of empathy. Does that sound weird? ‘The problem is that empathy is short-sighted,’ philosopher Ignaas Devisch writes in his book ‘The Excess of Empathy’. Empathy usually focuses on one individual, but that makes you lose sight of the group (suffering from the same setbacks) – in fact, that’s quite unfair. 

The solution? Change your perspective. Support organizations that try to bring structural change, such as poverty reduction, helping children in warzones or refugees. 

3. Look for balance

Devisch advocates what he calls ‘a functional indifference’. He says it’s simply impossible to be empathetic to everyone, it would cause a psychological overload. 

The trick is to find a balance. Not by being less empathetic, but by, for instance, saving your empathy mainly for the people you know, and striving for more equality – or supporting organizations who do. The latter may be less personal, but it’s just as important. This way, you keep your head up, knowing you can’t solve all the problems in the world, but doing all you can.

Text: Anne Wesseling - Photo: Annie Spratt