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Empathy - Can Too Much Be a Bad Thing? (original post on LinkedIn May 10, 2017)

Did you know that one Brazil nut contains more than our daily requirement of selenium (68 to 91 micrograms)?

Brazil nuts are high in vitamin E, selenium and B-complex vitamins as well as minerals like magnesium, manganese and copper. According to the National Institutes of Health - Office of Dietary Supplements, adults need 55 micrograms of selenium a day, but no more than 400 micrograms. Too much selenium can cause selenium toxicity and in extreme cases difficulty breathing, tremors, heart attack as well as kidney or heart failure.

So, too many Brazil nuts can be harmful. But what would happen to us if we didn't get enough selenium? While this is very rare, one could develop heart disease, male infertility or arthritis. All this to say, that too much of a good thing isn't always a good thing, but that not enough can be equally as dangerous.

The same holds true for empathy, which happens to be one component of emotional intelligence (EQ). I recently had a conversation about EQ with a friend who is a marriage counsellor. She was very direct when she told me that she did not need to focus on her emotional intelligence because she is incredibly caring and empathetic. She went on to say that the people who really need to have this conversation are those who have little empathy. However, she was convinced that they wouldn't see the need for it.

Through the conversation, my friend began to share that she was feeling burnt out and overwhelmed. She didn't have time for things that brought her joy and peace because she was so focused on helping her clients.

The questions I posed to myself after our interaction were these.

  • Why is there this assumption that people who are empathetic and caring are the emotionally intelligent ones?

  • Why is it that the ones who are least empathetic think all of this emotional intelligence stuff is fluffy and hogwash?

What I do know is this. Somebody with a healthy level of empathy can establish strong connections by earning the trust and respect of others. These people are usually very intuitive, sensitive to the emotions of others, notice subtleties in body language and voices, listen compassionately, know when to offer help and when to back off. In business, they are the ones who make sound and emotionally balance decisions and are able to manage well through conflict.

But how much is too much and how much is not enough?

Too Much Empathy

Just like Brazil nuts - too much empathy has a negative effect. Someone who is extremely empathetic experiences distress when engaged in an emotional conversation. This happens because they take on the pain and emotions of someone else, which causes stress hormone levels to increase. When this happens, feelings of distress, depression hopelessness can set in.

Incredibly empathetic people can also rub others the wrong way. I know a few people like this who take on the emotions others. As an example, I remember one woman who was feeling my sadness so much that she began to cry inconsolably - where I wouldn't even consider crying. It really bothered me that she seemed to be 'owning' my emotions and that I had to console her in the end.

Accept, appreciate and encourage expression in others, by observing our reactions and letting them go. ~ Marcia Roberts

With Brazil nuts, it's easy - be aware, don't eat too many. With empathy, the solution is similar but a little more complex. We have to:

  1. Be aware of how the other person is impacting our emotional well being.

  2. Set boundaries.

  3. Focus on our own self-care to ensure that we don't burn out.

  4. Remember that we don't own another person's emotions.

  5. Practice non-reactive empathy.

Too Little Empathy

Again, just like with selenium - too little empathy can be harmful. It can negatively impact our relationships and it can hold us back both personally and professionally. Without empathy, we won't be trusted and we will never be able to make meaningful connections. Leaders who are not empathetic - are not able to inspire others, get the most out of them or help them develop to their full potential.

You never really understand a person until you can consider things from his point of view, until you climb into his skin and walk around in it. ~ Atticus Finch, To Kill a Mockingbird

The good news is that we can build this empathetic muscle with the help of a little self awareness, a commitment to change and lots of practice. We need to be able to identify that our lack of empathy (or our apathy) could be negatively impacting relationships in our lives. A few ways to improve empathy are:

  1. Really pay attention to the interests and needs of the other person. Get to know them on a personal level.

  2. Remember common humanity and stop judging. Understand that everyone reacts differently to different situations. Think of a time when you were in a similar situation, imagine what they might be going through based on what you experienced.

  3. Focus on building connections. Talk less. Listen more. Show them you care. Enter the conversation genuinely wanting to learn more about the other person and give them your 100% focus.

Bringing it All Together

We are all perfectly imperfect human beings with quirks, qualities and traits that we would like to improve. Finding a place in between the extremes is important when it comes to many personal traits, including empathy. Self-awareness is key to understanding how we are perceived by others and what traits we might want to strenthen. By doing the work to improve ourselves, we will in turn not only change other's perceptions of us, but will be better positioned to develop strong and meaningful relationships. People appreciate when others take the time for self-improvement and everyone benefits as a result. And about the Brazil nuts - who knew?

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