The Dark Side of My Empathy

by Melissa Karnaze

serene crescent moonI consider my empathy to be one of my greatest strengths. But it has a dark side, and that’s… a temper.

It’s a temper that comes with being ultra sensitive to the world and its dysfunctions, to people and their pains. To emotions, which are out of whack, out of tune, ignored, stuffed, repressed, and then erupting like a volcano in the wrong places at the wrong times — doing lots of damage and coming nowhere near fixing the problems that they were meant to signal for in the first place.

Empathy is not all goodEmpathy is painful

Being able to feel other people’s emotions can be taxing and painful. Being able to feel other people’s emotions and see their dysfunctional patterns means that I have to fight really hard to hold my tongue or look the other way when it’s not my business to fix, do, or say anything. That’s a heavy burden that can take a toll if I’m not careful.

I see the world through a brutally honest lens. I see pain, darkness, dysfunction all around. All the time. Now the world isn’t black, but it’s highly shadowed.

I’m not complaining, because I would never trade my empathy in for an “easier” mental-emotional lifestyle. No, I simply face up to the fact that I need razor sharp mental and emotional boundaries in place to protect my own emotional reserves and to steer my temper so that it doesn’t steer me.

Because feeling the world means feeling its pain. There’s so much of it. It seems unending. The pain isn’t necessarily bad, but it does hurt.

Empathy needs to be managed

When I don’t manage the dark emotions that come with empathy, and use an outlet for all the anger and outrage feeling that pain stirs — it comes out through my temper.

I become harsh on other people, expecting way too much from them — expecting them to see what I see. I get mad when they stay stuck in problems and don’t deal with their emotions. I forget that denial is delicate, and that one of the worse things I can do is force awareness on other people.

I may even call others out on their problems and why they are still stuck, when they weren’t even asking for — when they didn’t even care about — my opinion.

I get really critical of all that’s wrong and I forget temporarily that fighting against when you can fight for is weak, unproductive, and destructive.

That I’ve got to focus on making things right, on building.

Empathy can lead to temper

As far as I know, my greatest dark side is my unrelenting mean-nasty temper. I used to resort to this secret weapon in heated arguments to do real damage. It’s not something I’m proud of.

Since my empathy primes me to analyze people’s thoughts and behaviors with precision, when my temper would let loose, I would cut and stab someone, with whom I was in conflict, in all the tender places in ways that they could not deny — because my empathy-driven analyzing was so accurate.

I knew their fears, their struggles, their blind spots, their deepest wounds — it was empathy that gave me that sight, to deconstruct almost anything.

A temper gone berserk can do a lot of damage. And believe me, my temper can do more than just cut and stab in all the tender places. It can shoot me in the foot too.

My dark side hurts me too

It hurt me every time my temper lashed out on those I cared about, because, again, well, the empathy. I’ve mourned over my temper’s messes and made amends when I could.

Luckily I learned how to work constructively through anger to find love and gratitude in its place. (An intensive labor process, beyond this article’s scope.) In the early days of my temper, it was trying to be nice to everyone, and stuffing the upsets, that led to the problems later on.

My temper is not something I’m ashamed of (shame doesn’t really help any situation), but something that daunts me when I realize what just happened.

I treasure my empathy. It keeps me afloat. I also treasure the temper that empathy can stir. Anger is the pulse of life — you need to hear its signals to know what’s going on in your inner and outer worlds.

But no one can afford to wreck-ball their relationships. My temper is something that I need to be mindful of.

I need to own my dark side, use it for good

Especially now, as I’m finding, because the more that I write at Mindful Construct, the more aware of dysfunction and pain and dark stuff I become. With that, comes, you guessed it, an easily out-of-check temper.

But only when I don’t use my outlets for dealing with anger appropriately, such as journaling, venting in private, and talking with someone I trust for perspective.

Anger, the pulse of life, needs to be used for good. It’s meant to protect life, to honor it. Society and dysfunctional beliefs just mess up that beautiful process all too often.

My temper is also my light side

There are times when my temper is the best thing to mobilize me to take constructive, mindful, and healthy responses to life.

It was pain and my temper that motivated the creation of Mindful Construct.

A temper channeled with the proper balance is a good thing to have. Sometimes my best friend. I can count on my hand the few times I really used my temper to stand up for myself, for the right reasons, with no regret.

What is your dark side?

Like any gift, empathy has a dark side. It means you have to have boundaries in place so that you don’t take on all the pain of the world and let it warp you and drive you rabid.

In this world, gaining something usually means losing something else.

What do you consider to be one of your greatest strengths? With that strength comes a few or many weaknesses as well… what are they?

Is there a dark side lurking beneath the surface?

Don’t be ashamed, just take a look. Here, use a flashlight if you have to. It’s actually a relief once you can recognize it.

{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Sonia Connolly November 2, 2009 at 10:22 am

Wow, I’ve never seen anyone else talk about this side of empathy. I’ve also had a pattern of losing my temper and accurately (but unkindly) analyzing people. Needing to realize that other people’s denial is their business, not mine. Making a commitment to my own boundaries and slowly changing my patterns. Staying aware of my own needs and communicating them, and taking space before I lose my temper.

Thank you for posting this!

Melissa Karnaze November 2, 2009 at 10:33 am

That’s the thing, you are *accurate* in analyzing, but it’s not your place to share or try to change other people unless they ask. Holding all of that empathy/knowledge inside without an outlet can lead to unjustified rage. The things you listed are great to keep working on.

Thanks so much for sharing Sonia. I can imagine that being a Trauma Healing Practitioner is something that is ever challenging in this area, but worth the challenge. :)

Sonia Connolly November 2, 2009 at 10:47 am

Hi, Melissa! Well, I’m a Trauma Healing Practitioner because even when I keep my mouth shut, my awareness of people’s Stuff seems to bring it up for them. I figure it’s only fair to let everyone know right up front. Does that happen for you?

Also, my practice is a wonderful daily reminder that the more I act as facilitator (rather than Fixer) and trust that everything my clients need is already inside them, the more healing happens. It is definitely worth the challenge!

Melissa Karnaze November 2, 2009 at 12:42 pm

Facilitator is such a beautiful word, isn’t it? I will be starting facilitator work next year, but I can totally relate to what you are describing! Although, I have a hard, hard time keeping my mouth shut. :D (Which is one reason why I have to write so much.)

I’ve found that my awareness of other people’s stuff and blind spots, it seems by circumstance, puts me in the position to be the one to confront them when they try their usual tactics on me. So when someone comes to me and tries to do the same dysfunctional shebang that they’ve gotten away with their whole life, I tell them about it in order to hold my own boundaries.

It’s a painful job, that I call, “playing the dark role,” but it’s an important job because it triggers their own dark side, so that they may look at it and see if they want to continue hurting themselves and other people.

And I think at a subconscious level, when you are aware of someone else’s problems, you are going to indicate that in some way, or at least be more mindful to allow them the space to recognize it… which may trigger them to look at the problems.

I totally agree that what people need to heal is already inside them. That’s a wisdom that’s too forgotten these days. But we keep drumming on. It’s so great to hear from you Sonia. :)

Sonia Connolly November 2, 2009 at 12:53 pm

Thanks again for talking about this. Your clarity about it shines a light on some of my own recurring struggles.

Melissa Karnaze November 2, 2009 at 8:10 pm

My pleasure Sonia. :) Thanks again for your comments.

Kelley Mitchell November 4, 2009 at 3:21 pm

The awareness of my empathy hit me at two different points. The first was when, a couple of days ago, I took my 13-year-old son the doctor for his annual checkup. I let the doctor know that my son has anxiety something that happens to me as well.

The doctor told us that anxiety often happens to people who are thoughtful and empathetic. I was surprised to hear that, but it definitely made sense.

But it wasn’t until I read your post that I realized it’s my empathy that can lead me to be angry; angry at people when they don’t show the same level of empathy. For me this happens on the road or waiting in lines. For my son it happens at school, when kids are talking or doing something they shouldn’t that will get the class to lose privileges.

We both want people to do what they’re suppose to do so that we can all be happy, but when they don’t that’s when we get very tense and even angry. Why can’t people be more thoughtful like us!

And I do sometimes envy my husband and our older son for their easy “mental-emotional lifestyle”, but now that you bring it up, I wouldn’t trade it for anything either. It’s part of what makes me a great mom. And for my son, it has brought out his leadership by helping his classmates to stay on task.

I hope I have made sense. It is a new realization for me and not something I have talked or even written about before.

Thanks for another enlightening post Melissa.

Melissa Karnaze November 4, 2009 at 5:05 pm

Kelley, thanks so much for sharing. It seems you and I were both thinking about the topic of empathy this past week. :)

Yes, the empathy does mean that you see where people are doing destructive things, but as you described with your son, it also motivates you to find constructive responses and even become a leader in doing so.

It can be a wonderful gift, as long as you are also aware of its dark side. Recognizing this dark side can allow for a better appreciation for the empathy and a better understanding of oneself.

Thanks again Kelley, it’s always great to hear your thoughts on the articles here.

guest November 28, 2009 at 1:35 pm

Keep up the good fight.

we are all so unique and everyone of us has 1 unique apex in our personality that is bigger than everyone else’s on the planet. We all just need each other to help peel of the suppressing layers that we take on. All taken on before we are even able to be aware of…. and defend against these depressing gremlin’s that we accept inside us and just accept as the make up of our personality. With your Empathy you should fully help uncover at least one apex of a loved one…and make them trully happy.

Although my story is quite a different battle :)

guest November 28, 2009 at 2:07 pm

I would like to help you stop criticizing people for the supressing layers they have accumulated due to the unavoidable circumstances of their world. I can see getting provoked by these people, if you want to lose your temper you must better chose the one’s you want to help. But no one is perfect so maybe someone with grand Empathy will come along and help make you the best you can be.

Melissa Karnaze November 28, 2009 at 6:10 pm

guest, yes we are all so unique. Much of the world is set up to suppress that, and we can definitely help each other figure that out. But I don’t believe it is one person’s job to uncover the apex of another person or “make them” happy, since self-sustaining happiness comes from within. :)

Comments you leave here can definitely support other people in not “supressing layers they have accumulated due to the unavoidable circumstances of their world.” I think one of the best things we can do is support this small but growing community where it’s safe to stop the pattern of suppression.

If you think there are any other article topics that would also be constructive, feel free to suggest them. :)

Terry August 1, 2012 at 12:36 pm

In myself I don’t think empathy causes me to have a temper, I think what causes my anger is the feeling of helplessness, helpless to help others. Example: My Mom is an addict, nothing I say or do can help her, this makes me sad, then angry at her for not listening to me. I guess what I am trying to say is empathy in itself does not cause my anger, it is my secondary emotions and the accompaning feelings of me not being able to help her, or maybe I am angry because I think she should listen to me and things would be ok.

Great article!

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