The Empathy Trap

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Sometimes the world can feel like a mess. The cruelty, the hatred, the gaslighting from every direction. The hidden agendas and loud, screaming voices. If you’re empathetic you feel all of it. You anticipate the pain of the people around you. You understand the hurt behind those who are misbehaving, even when their actions are harmful or toxic.

You not only feel all of the pain, but your loyalty tells you that other people need you. You want to be loyal to a friend who is hurting—even a friend with whom you disagree. You might even wish to be loyal to someone who is behaving poorly, mistreating you, or mistreating someone you love.

Your empathy feels it all. Your loyalty keeps you from saying much of anything.

Empathy is a gift, as is loyalty, don’t get me wrong. But if you’re not prayerful and careful with them, you’ll find yourself trapped between your own best qualities.

You’ll find yourself stuck in what I call the Empathy Trap.

The Empathy Trap

Empathy is the ability to feel with another person. It’s not feeling sorry for them. It’s stepping inside their skin and feeling what they feel. It’s an uncanny gift. Empathy is the oxygen of healing.

Loyalty is showing support through the bad and the good. It’s seeing the worst in someone you love and sticking with them. At its best, loyalty is similar to faithfulness. It’s the fabric of safety and trust.

Mixed together these two qualities create the best kind of friend, spouse, child, parent, or neighbor. Someone who gets what you are going through. Someone who will stick with you, no matter what.

The problem is that these qualities may well keep you trapped if someone is exploiting you.

The problem is that sometimes people are not worthy of these gifts that you bring.

One of the hardest challenges you will face as an empathetic person, is showing up for yourself, especially if it might hurt someone.

Empathy makes it incredibly hard to confront misbehavior in the people you love. You feel what they feel, and you sense how they will respond. You don’t want to hurt anyone. Your care is genuine. Then, add loyalty into that mix, and you will face an incredible challenge.

Empathy tells you, “Don’t hurt anyone.”

Loyalty tells you, “You have to stick by them.”

Taken together, you might feel incredibly stuck. That’s why you need to develop a third quality if you really want to become the best version of yourself.

The Way Out of the Trap

Empathy and loyalty are priceless. They are powerful agents of healing and safety. But, if you are someone who is rich in these two qualities, there is a third ingredient you will need:

Courage

Courage takes empathy by the hand and gently propels you forward. It helps you step out from behind all of your efforts to show up for them, and reminds you that you also have to show up for yourself.

Courage says to empathy:

I see you. You are so deeply feeling. But, I need you to trust me on this. It’s not OK to let someone else mistreat you, just because you understand the hurt behind their behavior. Would you step behind me for a moment? It’s not unkind to name a behavior that is wrong.

Courage says to loyalty:

I get you. You are strong and capable. You would take a bullet for this other person. But right now, you are the one who is bruised and busted up. You are the one who needs support.  Would you rest for a moment? It’s not disloyal to speak up for yourself.

Courage gives you the mental and spiritual strength to name what is wrong and to stand for what is right. It helps you break free from the Empathy Trap. Think about it. Folks who lack empathy don’t need a lot of courage to use their voice. They aren’t aware of (or don’t care about) how others feel. So, they simply steamroll over them. Likewise, folks who lack loyalty don’t need courage to face conflict in relationships. They don’t care. They’ll just move on.

But that’s not you. You do care about what they feel. You can’t just move on, at least not that easily. If you are an empathetic person, you must develop courage to create the change that you need.

Empathy makes it hard to speak up in a way that might hurt someone else, even when you are the one being hurt.

You need courage to break silent pacts that are hurting you.

You need courage to seek help from someone outside of a broken system.

You need courage to speak up on behalf of wrongs that you see.

You need courage to protect yourself, or someone you love.

If you are an empathetic person, one of the most difficult realities you will have to face is the reality that sometimes people can be small, petty, manipulative, or downright cruel. Even the people you love.

Steps to Break Free From the Empathy Trap

  1. Clarify the facts to yourself and to God.

Before you figure out what to say or do in a challenging situation, start by naming the facts inside of yourself first. At this point, stick to the facts. For example:

  • He gossips about me.
  • She is manipulating me.
  • They are showing cruel behavior toward other people.

Try not to justify or analyze why they might be doing this at this point. Simply ask God to help you see the situation clearly. Getting honest with yourself about what is happening is courageous in and of itself.

  1. Separate the behavior from the person.

Practice isolating the problematic behavior from the other person. You might start by imagining this behavior in other contexts with other people. For example, if someone was treating a friend this way, how would you respond? What would you want to teach your child about this behavior? How would you help them learn to protect themselves from it?

Write out statements about the general behavior to help you get clarity about what’s happening. For example:

  • Manipulating other people isn’t OK.
  • I don’t like it when someone tries to control me.
  • Someone who makes snide, rude comments about other people is likely saying similar things about me.
  1. Consider your empathy and loyalty as parts of you that might be over-working.

Everybody needs a rest sometimes to show up as their best self. Think of empathy and loyalty as parts of you that work over-time and might need a rest. What if you asked them to sit out from this particular situation, so that other parts of you can step up? You don’t want them to go away—in fact, you need them. But in this particular situation, you might need other parts of you to weigh in. For example, you might make room for anger, conviction, honesty, or wisdom at the table of your soul. What approach might these parts of you bring to the table?

4. Consider a healthy boundary you might set.

As you get stronger internally, you’ll be more prepared to take brave steps externally with other people. As you consider how and when to use your voice, check out some of the articles listed below on how to set healthy boundaries and use your voice wisely.

Above all: Do not lose your empathy, nor your loyalty. They’re incredibly valuable parts of who you are. However, do not waste them on the wrong behaviors. Learn to lead yourself wisely, as you develop your courage.

“I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.” —Matthew 10:16

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