If you've never heard the phrase "Pathological Empathy," don't berate yourself. I invented it. I came up with it to describe what happens when empathy goes wrong. It may seem odd to think that something as great as empathy could go wrong, but I can assure you - from personal experience - that it not only can, but does.
Empathy is a wonderful trait. It's what allows us to walk this journey together and find common ground. It lets up put ourselves (mentally) into another's situation and understand them a bit better. It's what lets us find a space for compromise - to give and take instead of acting out our selfish tendencies. In other words, it makes us more human.
Pathological Empathy on the other hand is not healthy. It leads to such negative outcomes as enabling and allowing ourselves to be needlessly taken advantage of. We find ourselves "attempting" to manage another persons suffering. If I seem to be an expert - it's only because I am.
Let me give you some examples of what Pathological Empathy looks and acts like. It's moving someone into your house, filing an order of protection for them, finding them a job, babysitting while they work at the job you found for them only to find out that they lied to you about being abused. (To avoid doing anything even remotely this crazy yourself see:)
It's knowing someone you love is hurting and jumping it to "manage" things for them instead of being supportive and giving suggestions. It's finding yourself time and time again, in the middle of drama that you not only have no ownership of, but no business handling. It's feeling brokenhearted when your "good intentions" are misinterpreted.
If you see yourself in any of these tendencies, you'll also see yourself in these outcomes. The people you try to "rescue" don't appreciate your help, (mostly because they didn't need it.) You end up looking and feeling like an idiot. You say things to yourself like "I never learn" and "never again" only to realize you haven't learned and you've done it again!
It's taken me a lot of time (and personal restraint) to allow others the right to their own pain and suffering. Yes, pain and suffering is the God given right of every person who is born into this life. It's not a pleasant teacher, but it's a good one. Most of the knowledge and experience I hold most valuable was a direct result of having passed through the refiners fire and coming out (a little smokey) on the other side.
There is a fine line between empathy and pathological empathy. It's not always easy to see, but a good question to ask yourself to make sure you stay on the right side of that line is this: "Can this person handle this situation on their own." If the answer is yes, even if doing so won't be easy or pleasant, stay out of it. It's OK to offer suggestions or support, but we must (for our sake and theirs) allow people to grow through handling their own challenges. When we do, it shows them that we have faith in their ability to do so. Jumping in and taking over show's just the opposite.
I'm working hard at recovering from Pathological Empathy, but just like anyone else who's ever tried to recover from an addiction, I still slip back from time to time and it's most often when my heart is very invested.
My name is Anita, and I'm a Pathological Empathetic.