When Empathy Becomes Responsibility

Empathy is a wonderful, amazing strength.

Merriam-Webster defines empathy as:

The action of being sensitive to and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts and experience of another.

The ability to be empathetic is a gift.  It allows you to understand where someone is coming from and offer support and encouragement.

For those of us with a strong empathetic trait, we can usually

  • sense what someone needs before they can say it,
  • see the other side of the story,
  • we find it easy to step in and help

We make great friends and partners because we tend to know when to step in, and we are really, really helpful.

Where highly empathetic people run into trouble is when they turn empathy into responsibility.
Responsibility, as defined by Merriam-Webster, is:

 having the duty to take care of something for someone.

When 3 of the primary empathetic traits all work together, they combine to make the Responsibility Trifecta:

These traits are:

  1. Empathy for the other person, therefore, a strong desire to be helpful.
  2. Justifying any behavior (even bad behaviors)
  3. Putting put your priorities last.

When these three traits combine, empathetic folk move from being understanding and sensitive to ditching their priorities and needs so they can take accountability and responsibility for someone else.

Recently a friend of mine shared her struggle with this idea.  She works as a full-time teacher and has three kids under 12.  There tend to be two groups of teachers at her school: those that are young, having babies, and those that are nearing retirement. Recently, many other younger teachers have started having babies, and one of the traditions is to prepare them meals.  My friend loves this idea; she remembers how much it meant to her to get these meals when she had her kids, and she empathizes with new mothers.    Those nearing retirement are willing to participate in the meal program but only half-heartedly, and the new mom’s although they appreciated it when they got meals are just too overwhelmed to participate.

So Susan has become the primary champion of the meal program–she has found her self-running the whole program and cooking 2-3 meals a week for the new moms to pick up the teachers’ slack.  She said to me, “I barely have enough energy to cook for my family now, and that is where I want to be spending my energy.”  When I asked her why she didn’t stop, she said, “Those first couple of weeks are so hard and having meals is so helpful.” To which I asked, “Why do you have to be the one to do it all?” ” I am sure these women have other friends and family who can make meals.  It sounds like this tradition has run its course at your school, and it is time for one of the new mom’s to pick up the slack or for it to die. ”

Susan had completed the Responsibility Trifecta:

  1. She really wanted to help these new moms; she remembered what it felt like to be a new mom.
  2. She could justify why it was ok that every other teacher didn’t help out.  She could explain away their behaviors.
  3. Her own family’s meals were pushed to the very last.

Susan had found herself responsible for the entire program.

Last week, Susan informed me that she announced to the teachers that she was stepping down from being in charge of meals; someone else could lead the program, or they could let it die down until someone had more time.  Susan got a little flack and a bit of pushback, but she held her ground.  And kept repeating to herself, “I am not responsible for these new mothers,” “they have other resources,” “I can be empathetic AND have to keep my priorities.”  Susan was excited to have her evenings back and be able to cook for her family again.

Empathy is awesome!!  But when empathy becomes a responsibility, it leaves us drained and exhausted.

2 Comment
  • Comment by Melanie at June 2, 2013 @ 5:23 pm

    The flight attendants tell you to put your own oxygen mask on before you help someone else with theirs for a reason, right? 🙂

    I just began a new job in a different department and there is a woman there who is always behind on her work. She gets overwhelmed easily and is known to cry at her desk–open, shuddering sobs–and she does this like several times a week. At first, I felt compelled to help her every time, to stay late, to do whatever it took to get the job done.

    After a while, I realized a couple things: 1) She is always going to be overwhelmed and behind, and a lot of it has to do with her work-habits. 2) As much as I wanted to help her, I also wanted to be PERCEIVED as a competent team-player by the rest of my new group.

    I have to constantly remind myself that not every problem is mine to fix and that I’m not responsible for other people’s perceptions of me or how they manage their own lives.

  • Comment by Nancy Jane Smith at June 4, 2013 @ 2:04 pm

    This is so true and so challenging at the same time: “I have to constantly remind myself that not every problem is mine to fix and that I’m not responsible for other people’s perceptions of me or how they manage their own lives.”

    You bring up a great point which is other people’s perception. The issue is deeper than just I wanting to help someone but we also want to be perceived by others as a helper, team player, an overall ‘good egg’. Thanks for adding a new dimension!