How To Show Empathy Without Spiraling Into Depression

A new study suggests that putting yourself in someone else's shoes can be hazardous to your health.

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While everyone needs a shoulder to cry on, a new study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology suggests that encouraging your kids to experience unbridled empathy (or “walk a mile in someone else’s shoes”) can be hazardous to their health, and lead to emotional burnout in the long run. When we imagine how a troubled friend might feel, the findings suggest, our blood vessels contract in a way that closely mimics the body’s threat response. On the other hand, when we display empathy without actually putting ourselves in our friend’s shoes, that threat response stays in check.

“We found that people who engaged in empathy for a suffering other by focusing on that person’s feelings experienced less stress than people who engaged in empathy by imagining themselves in the other person’s situation,” coauthor Michael Poulin, a psychology professor at the University of Buffalo, told Fatherly.

Poulin and colleagues identified two types of empathy — IOPT (imagine-other perspective taking) and ISPT (imagine-self perspective taking). The key difference between the two lies in how vividly you imagine the other person’s plight. IOPT is engaging in empathy simply by thinking about how another person feels. “If my son has a bad dream,” Poulin explains “I can reasonably assume that he is scared and needs to be comforted.” ISPT, however, is engaging in empathy by mentally thrusting yourself into a troubling situation. “To return to the example of my son having a bad dream,” Poulin says. “I could imagine how I would feel if I had a bad dream, or I could even think back to a time when I did.

Both methods involve caring about another person and trying to understand his or her feelings. But only with ISPT do we jump into the sufferer’s world and try to experience those negative feelings firsthand. Although prior studies had demonstrated that ISPT is a relatively distressing and traumatizing way to show comfort, Poulin wondered whether there was a biological basis to these observations. So he and his team measured the cardiovascular activity of 202 volunteers as they counseled suffering people, using either an IOPT, ISPT, or objective approach. They found that volunteers who offered counsel with an ISPT strategy displayed the greatest signs of physical distress.

Still, when it comes to empathy, neither method is foolproof. “There is some research on the dangers of IOPT,” Poulin says. “If you’re wrong about how the other person is feeling, that can create a barrier to helping.” But ISPT has the potential to be far more psychologically dangerous than IOPT, especially in fields such as medicine in which practitioners see incredible pain and suffering on a daily basis. Poulin speculates that routine empathy via ISPT can lead to emotional burnout. “ISPT has the disadvantage of making empathy feel aversive and stressful,” he says.So teaching your children empathy may not be so straightforward. Poulin, who has two children of his own, says that he tries to teach his kids healthy empathy, albeit indirectly. “I take these findings to heart,” Poulin says. “I try to help my boys care and be kind to other people specifically by telling them to think about how others are feeling. I don’t overtly discourage ISPT, but I try to encourage and model IOPT in hopes that will help them think in those terms.”