This may come as a surprise to you - that you can be dong it wrong.
Fear not - as long as you are open to new perspectives - this can be fixed.
It will improve your life when you understand this and make the change.
What is empathy?
First you just need to be clear about what empathy is.
Second, you may be showing empathy without realising there are different types.
Knowing the types and how you can express empathy will help you to understand which is best.
Empathy can be defined as the ability to sense other people's emotions along with the ability to imagine what someone else might be thinking or feeling.
Cognitive empathy versus Emotional empathy
Cognitive empathy is being able to put yourself into someone else’s place, and see their perspective. This means that cognitive empathy is empathy by thinking and knowing, rather than by actually mirroring the feeling.
Emotional empathy is when you quite literally feel the other person’s emotions alongside them, as if you had ‘caught’ the emotions. You live their feelings as your own (as close as you can imagine).
I found emotional empathy to also be described as ‘personal distress’ or ‘emotional contagion’. I feel this expresses just how very emotional it is for you.
Of course we can never really know what is it like for that person. We may be able to relate to it - have been through similar situations and experiences. We do not have their history, background, thoughts, emotions etc. This means that without seeing fully through their lens/perspective we can only imagine as closely as our experiences match.
For this reason when we want to help someone we cannot really advise but we can help them to come up with options. That is what we as coaches do. We ask questions to help people come up with options. We don't talk at you or advise you (beware the coaches who do this!) instead we ask questions, listen, reflect back and help you navigate your way to the best solution for you.
Is empathy good?
The answer is of course that empathy, in essence, is good. Whether it is good for both parties is dependent - it's all about the empathy you show. It is all about preserving yourself so you continue to be of help to people. When someone says they suffer burnout - consider if they were taking on everyone's emotions as though they were their own. Consider the empathy type they employ. Then consider what you do and how you will prevent burnout for yourself.
When is empathy bad?
We can become overwhelmed if we are continually taking on everyone else's emotions. So that is when we emotionally empathize (and feel their emotions). This means we cannot respond as well. Many people in the caring industry reach burnout as they have spent a lot of time being emotionally empathetic. You then need to put extra work into yourself to manage your self - self care and self regulation.
There is a third class of empathy - compassionate empathy. Like sympathy, compassion is about feeling concern for someone, but with an additional move towards action to mitigate the problem. this is best - because you are in the best position to help them.
Why would we want to empathize?
We want to be empathetic. Its gives acknowledgement and shows understanding. This helps the person. They will think more favorably of you if they feel understood by you and also more likely to share and reciprocate. Here everyone gains. Sometimes just acknowledgement and understanding is good but people may want assistance too.
So in short, empathy is good but very detrimental if done wrong. You suffer. Then you are less able to continue to help others and yourself. Many get it wrong - however empathy without experiencing the full emotion for yourself is the aim.