top of page

Empathy – The Good, The Bad & The Ugly

Empathy is often seen as the basis for moral action and thus itself fundamentally good. It is an invaluable tool for understanding and connecting with other people's feelings and experiences. But on closer inspection, the ability to empathise with others can bring many unintended consequences. Even worse, it is precisely the ability to empathise that is the motivation behind some targeted humiliations and cruelties.

The good sides of empathy

At its core, empathy is the ability to understand and share another person's feelings. First and foremost, it is about seeing the world through their eyes, understanding their perspective and feelings, and responding in a way that is supportive and compassionate.

Empathy helps us build trust with our colleagues or clients, build relationships and practice kindness in our daily lives. Empathy enables us to see things from other people's perspectives and can also help us to make decisions not just out of self-interest, but taking into account the needs of others. In the workplace, it thus brings some advantages:

  • Improved communication: Empathy enables individuals to better understand and reflect the perspective and feelings of others, which can lead to more effective communication. And taking it a step further, one also needs to understand why the person feels the way they do and acknowledge their experiences without judgement.

  • Stronger relationships: This helps to build trust and connection between people, which in turn can lead to more honest conversations and strengthens relationships with colleagues and clients.

  • Better collaboration: When people feel taken seriously, understood and supported, they are likely to work together more effectively and be more helpful to each other.

  • Better problem solving: Empathy also enables more effective problem solving. Because it helps to understand each other's points of view and to work together on more comprehensive and innovative solutions.

These and many other helpful benefits of empathy are indisputable and make it a powerful factor. However, we should use it in a mindful way. Empathy is much more complex than it first appears.

The bad sides of empathy

Despite all the positive and supportive intentions with which we bring our empathy to bear, we should not be naive. The fact is that there are certain circumstances that can render it ineffective, distasteful and even harmful.

Many things in our lives that we supposedly do under the glorified banner of empathy can have unintended and serious consequences that we often underestimate or don't even have on our radar. Therefore, when practising empathy, there are quite a few aspects that need to be addressed:

  • Emotional exhaustion: It is great to understand and empathise with people, but it can also lead to emotional exhaustion. People who are empathetic tend to put the needs of others before their own, often at their own expense. This can leave you feeling overwhelmed and emotionally drained, which can affect your health, especially if empathy is a constant part of your job. It is important to take breaks and practice self-care to avoid burnout.

  • Burnout: Burnout can inevitably occur when professionals and managers become too emotionally involved and too often caught up in the problems and struggles of their staff and colleagues. This emotional involvement will inevitably take its toll over time.

  • Possible bias: Empathy that is not accompanied by objectivity can lead to biased decisions. We tend to want to be helpful and fair, but in reality decisions based only on our feelings and not logic can lead to bad outcomes. It is important to remember that while empathy should be taken into account when making decisions, it is only one factor among many.

  • Misunderstandings: Empathy can sometimes be misinterpreted as approval or support, which can lead to unnecessary misunderstandings. For example, if someone expresses empathy for a certain situation, this could be seen as a 'green light' to carry out the measure. This can lead to confusion and conflict, as the person expressing empathy may not necessarily agree with the action plan.

  • Risk of possible harassment claims: If empathy degenerates into unwanted attention or overly personal conversations, this could lead to the following consequences: The employee could feel harassed or ostracised, which could lead to a complaint against the company. Or if your advances make an employee uncomfortable and they make a complaint, the company could be liable for any damages resulting from the incident. And depending on the severity of the incident, the company may have to intervene and take disciplinary action against the employee in question.

  • A sense of entitlement: While there are many benefits to being an empathetic supervisor, there are also potential pitfalls to being too empathetic. For example, if a leader is too understanding or indulgent with their employees, it can lead to a loss of motivation among employees or even a sense of entitlement among some individuals who take advantage of the leader's kindness. In addition, if a leader does not show an appropriate relationship between closeness and distance to their team members, the boundaries between personal and professional relationships can become blurred, which can create additional problems in the workplace.

  • Dependencies: Another, often underestimated, problem with empathy is that even when it is well-intentioned, it can often have unintended consequences. For example, when trying to show empathy for people suffering from poverty or illness, one may donate money or resources without considering the potential impact of those donations. Similarly, emotional support can provide comfort in the short term but can lead to dependency in the long term if not managed properly. These unintended consequences should always be considered in empathetic behaviour.

This list is not exhaustive. But it shows how crucial it is to always be aware that empathy can have not only positive but also negative effects - both for others and for oneself. But not only that, it can also reach even deeper dimensions.

The ugly sides of empathy

One of the most disturbing aspects of empathy is its ability to enable targeted humiliation and cruelty. When someone has the ability to empathise with others, they can more easily see the weaknesses or vulnerabilities of others and then use that knowledge against them. This is why so many bullies, violent criminals are successful in their attempts to do harm: They understand how their victims feel and can use this understanding for strategic purposes to their advantage.

In his fascinating book «The Dark Side of Empathy», author Fritz Breithaupt explains that empathy plays a central role in a number of highly problematic forms of human behaviour. These include hostile hardening, terrorism, various forms of exploitation, sadism and bullying. False compassion and perpetual oppression are also part of the spectrum of behaviour enabled by empathy. He uses many examples to show how empathy must be understood precisely as a motivation to act. The conclusion is that these human atrocities do not happen in spite of empathy, but precisely because of it and with it. This ugly realisation stands in stark contrast to our everyday understanding of empathy.

Empathy – good, bad or ugly?

At its core, empathy is still considered a good quality in our society. Because empathy is an incredibly useful tool to better connect with our fellow human beings on an emotional level. But the happy-ever-after mentality with which some people peddle the topic of empathy can be questioned from time to time. We should free ourselves from an overly simple-minded and naive idea of empathy.

The question of whether empathy is good, bad or even ugly cannot be solved with a simple yes-no answer. As mentioned earlier, empathy is first and foremost a useful tool that achieves certain effects depending on intention, need and application. However, the threats it poses are a fact that cannot be dismissed. Fritz Breithaupt describes these dangers in detail, in his already mentioned book, in the following five tendencies:

  1. How empathy can lead to loss of self and why empathy may be on the wane in today's world.

  2. How people with empathy tend to think in black and white, or friend-foe terms.

  3. How empathy is regularly confused with identification and gets us caught up in saviour and helper roles.

  4. How people with empathy can enjoy the pain of others

  5. How people with empathy try to expand their own lives with different forms of vampirism.

And even this list is not exhaustive. There are other tendencies.

So again: is empathy good, bad or even ugly? This question in itself implies a certain morality. And this is precisely another tendency that most of us succumb to. We sometimes confuse empathy with morality. One need not exclude the other, but they are not the same thing. Instead of attaching a moral label to empathy, it seems more helpful to understand empathy as an enrichment and expansion of our own perception. A perception that we can continually nurture and educate, if only to shed some light on the darker side of empathy. For my part, I will continue to strive to use the positive sides of empathy as constructively as I possibly can, for myself and those around me. But I am not fooling myself. Because this much I have understood: More empathy does not necessarily make me a better person.


bottom of page