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The Dark Side of Empathy

One of the great characteristics associated with hypersensitivity is empathy. Empathy is undeniably a very beautiful quality which gives us the ability to put ourselves in the place of others and to feel their feelings and emotions. It is like a satellite antenna that picks up the emotional, even physical vibrations of others, even if sometimes these are suppressed by the other person.

In coaching and therapy, it is a very valuable “tool” for the practitioner because it will allow them to feel the unconscious or exiled parts of the client. Therefore the coach will be able to help the client to become aware of these lost, repressed or forgotten parts and will help them to accept and reintegrate those parts. In this schema, emotional empathy communicates this information to us. Emotional empathy is often triggered by the mirror effect of our neurons (of the same name, mirror neurons) which recognize in us, at a certain level, a raw, immediate and “instinctive” emotional feeling.

But empathy also has a cognitive level which is as much as important and valuable and that we will immediately address further down.

The Dark Side of Empathy

Before that, let's take a very simple example first... You meet someone for the first time and immediately, without any particular reason, except that this person seems to you to have a somewhat strange and hostile behavior, you feel antipathy towards them. , maybe even aversion. Your immediate response will therefore be to keep your distance and avoid any contact. In this context, your emotional empathy has signaled a form of rejection and unfavorable feeling to you, so your empathy will have no hold on you as no effort will be made on your part to “establish contact”. Intellectually, you block this person and, in the worst case, you may even be in judgment and immediate condemnation mod.

Now let's imagine another scenario...Same person, same negative gut feelings but in another context, where immediately after you come into contact with this person, you learn that they have had terrible traumas that caused them to be rather unpleasant and inaccessible at first sight. What will be your reaction then? The antipathy and aversion felt in the first scenario will be immediately replaced by compassion and empathy. And this empathy is cognitive.

Thanks to it, cognitive empathy takes on another dimension that offers us a real capacity for discernment and widens the restricted circle of our personal context and our conditioning. Suddenly, as in the example above, we are able to reconstitute by thought the context of life of people totally different from us, and so instead of judging them, or even condemning them, we will once again have access to our emotional empathy through the cognitive one.

Along the same lines, our cognitive empathy can also warn us if we are falling into our own trap of granting our emotional empathy to someone who does not deserve it or is even using it on us to manipulate us.

So emotional empathy has its downsides if we misuse it. If it is directed towards our loved ones exclusively, it can lead us to a strong aversion for anyone outside our immediate surroundings. This primary aversion must be completed and corrected by cognitive empathy in order to avoid reducing our empathy to feeling the other, and add the component of thinking the other.

Empathy can also be exploited to your detriment because it is an inexhaustible source of information for all malicious people. What would happen if an empathetic person simultaneously had a manipulative side, a psychic disorder, or even criminal intentions? They could then use their empathy to obtain information about other people's intimate lives, weaknesses, fears and aspirations, and thus manipulate them more easily. Empathy is like any other too, used with dishonest or selfish intentions, it can be the instrument of reprehensible behaviors and even dangerous acts.

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