Toxic Empathy

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Empathy is a powerful mechanism for human connections. I love that we are seeing an increasing number of public voices championing empathy. One such voice is Brené Brown, a researcher and author who demonstrates the power of vulnerability and empathy. She perfectly illustrates empathy in this video. Give it a watch before we dive into our topic.

Though I typically write reflections about the necessity of empathy, this post discusses the dark side of empathy, which I refer to as toxic empathy. Toxic empathy is an incredibly subversive threat because it is nearly indistinguishable from its counterpart.

As we increasingly integrate empathy into how we live, we increase the likelihood of unwittingly perpetuating toxic empathy. To end this, we must first learn to identify it.

I will share a personal experience as an example to help illustrate the insidious nature of toxic empathy. I hope that by sharing my experience, you will be able to identify it in your own life better and put an end to it.

I was dreading going to work. Dreading like, showing up later, pit in my stomach as I walked in, looking at my phone to avoid people, feeling like I want to be anywhere else, kind of dread. At the time, I managed one of the larger teams at the company, about 14 people. I was very fond of my team, had great relationships with everyone, and genuinely enjoyed the work we were doing together. It is not like me to avoid my people, my responsibility, or my work, so I recognized that something serious was going on.

As I began to observe myself, I noticed that the feelings of avoidance would increase whenever someone would come into my office and ask for my guidance. I would listen and offer well-intentioned feedback. I was doing what a good leader should do. However, it was not evident to me what was going on.

My pivotal “ah ha!” (or was it “uh oh?”) moment was when my boss unexpectedly confronted me. He asked, point-blank, “Do you undermine me?” My response was an immediate “no, of course not!” I was indignant as I replied, but that emotion was promptly replaced by a feeling of guilt and shame, which I was not prepared for (though I recognized it as my inner-self trying to get my attention). I wondered why my boss had asked that question. There must have been something that caused that feeling of insecurity.

“You do undermine him,” my subconscious said plainly. 

The scenes of those private conversations with my staff suddenly began to creep into my mind, and the guilt solidified. Things that I had allowed to be said, agreed with, and had even said myself, started playing through my mind. Naturally, I began to argue with myself so that I felt justified in my actions.

“My intent has never been to undermine anyone!” I told myself. “I’m a team player! They asked for my help and we were just processing. I’m just being a good leader!”

“At what cost?” Came the rebuttal. I had no response. 

Most of the frustrations that my staff were meeting with me about were directed at my boss (I was a manager on one of his many teams) as a reaction to his behaviors, policies, and decisions. I began to realize that my staff harboring frustrations wasn’t the problem, though. They should be allowed to be frustrated, and I should be there to support them. The problem was my behavior within those meetings. Instead of realizing people were catastrophizing and then helping them process their frustrations and arrive at thoughtful and useful perspectives, I took everything they said at face value and was tacitly or, at times, openly agreeing with their emotional reactions. I had taken perspective-taking to its extreme and had accidentally been perpetuating toxic empathy. I had failed to identify the difference between perspective-taking and permissive complicity, and my boss had intuitively felt the divisiveness I’d created. 

Toxic empathy is created when we alter reality to accommodate other people or ourselves. 

Under the guise of “processing,” we inevitably fall into harmful dialogue. In my efforts to make my staff feel heard, valued, and understood, I would say or agree with things I didn’t believe. Not lies, per se. A lie is used to deceive and harm. My lack of truthfulness was intended to validate their emotions and perspectives. The problem appeared when I agreed with them as though their emotionally charged perspectives were accurate, even in instances when it was objectively clear that they were not. Untruthfulness of any form ultimately seeks to alter what is. Simply put, I was bending reality. 

In my efforts to validate people, I gave life to unhelpful, negative emotions. This is harmful, whether I am a leader, a friend, or a spouse. Toxic empathy creates an untrue, false reality and allows emotional, skewed perspectives to take root. Legitimate or not, our emotions are treacherous and untrustworthy. Indeed, it is not a matter of legitimacy. Everything, in the particular moment that it is felt or thought, feels legitimate. It is only after time has passed and after more level-headed reflection that we can decide upon rational perspectives because we have a better grasp of what we think or feel. That is why we must do everything possible to perceive reality rightly and avoid altering it at all costs. This is why we must tell the truth, even when it is uncomfortable for us or others. We must use empathy to support people, not lie to them. Indeed, it would have been better for me to remain supportive and silent with my staff than to bend reality to make them feel better.

Reality will not tolerate being bent. After untruths have been put forth, reality will eventually snap back into place to right itself. This will always happen without fail. As a consequence, reality will whip everyone disproportionately harder than it would have had we just told the truth. That is precisely what I experienced when my boss confronted me. I remember the disorienting feeling of realityrighting itself, falling back into its proper place. I could see all my untruthfulness, all the misguided, well-meaning words I had spoken, and I felt the weight of it all. The ripple effect of conflict reached far beyond the context and privacy of the employee-manager conversations I’d been having. Be careful what you whisper, even in secret. Our words take on a life of their own.

I felt as though I was the butterfly in Brazil whose wings had caused a tornado in Texas. 

I am mature enough to recognize that ignorance does not equal innocence. By validating the reactionary perspectives of my staff and agreeing with them (explicitly or implicitly), I had created a culture of negativity, animosity, and division. My staff felt justified in their own minds about their harsh opinions and prejudices. My boss felt defensive (albeit ignorant as to why), paranoid, and suspicious of me as a result. I was the leader, I had set the course, and now I, my staff, and my boss were paying the price.

Though I couldn’t ask my team to stop being negative (in their perspective, they hadn’t been!), I could take responsibility. I gathered everyone and told them how I had been enabling negativity in all of us. I told them I wanted to partner with them in eliminating it so that we could achieve better outcomes. Toxic empathy was now exposed, out in the open. Once we could see what we had been doing, the change took place almost overnight. We began to tell each other the truth. When a challenge arose, we would talk it through and, at the end, ask: “OK, now what are you going to do about it?” We were able to focus on the work, not our frustrations. Genuine empathy taught us to assume the best about people and to check our perspectives carefully. The assumption of ignorance on our part allowed us to consider the intelligence and thoughtfulness of others until proven otherwise. Getting rid of toxic empathy allowed us to focus on creative, positive solutions instead of getting mired down discussing how stupid someone was.

To break the cycle of toxic empathy, we must better understand empathy. Empathy cannot come at the cost of other people. 

We must not intentionally or ignorantly weaponize empathy to validate vitriolic emotions and knee-jerk perspectives.

We must not bend reality to accommodate a flawed worldview, even for the sake of making someone feel better. Empathy demands more of us. Again, if you have not watched the video, this is your second chance. Take the hint 🙂

As Brené referenced in the video, Theresa Wiseman’s research is spot on. Empathy is the ability to:

  • See the world as others see it (perspective taking)

  • Be non-judgmental

  • Understand another person’s thoughts and feelings

  • Communicate your understanding of their thoughts and feelings

Notice there is nothing about problem-solving. There is nothing about compromising yourself on behalf of another person. I can truthfully say that I can now empathize with people that I can’t entirely agree with. Agreement is not the objective of empathy. Our objective ought to be connection and compassion. In other words, we can feel for someone without agreeing with them. Empathy lets people know they’re not alone as they work through something difficult, even if we can see they’re catastrophizing. Empathy allows us to edify people during their darkest moments, regardless of our own opinions. We must be devoted to building each other up. We must edify and encourage those we love. We will not be able to do this by bending reality. This does not serve people, and the consequences are far-reaching and unpredictable.

It is far better to live in a momentarily uncomfortable reality than to limp along in a fragile, false, alternate reality.

Validating perspectives too quickly can embolden people to head down a dangerous path which they might not otherwise have done had we not interfered with our advice or toxic empathy. It is far better to use wisdom to carefully determine how to involve ourselves in the challenges others are presenting. We do not need to solve other people’s problems. Empathy allows you to support someone as they work through a challenge. In the same way that we should not be too quick to give advice and tell people how to solve their problems, we should also be very slow to agreement or validating perspectives. There is no need to compromise yourself to validate something you disagree with. Indeed, there is no need to bring your own opinions up at all. Our minds change. Our emotions are fickle. It takes time to know what we think and feel. We must navigate that journey with others, but we must do so carefully. Often, asking questions is the best way to help (if we have even been asked to help in the first place). 

In all other cases, empathy, compassion, and kindness will do just fine.