Empathy - being able to read and understand other people's feelings - is counted as a great asset; but it can have a dark side, writes counsellor Nichola Suzanne Marsonet.
Empathy for our peers is taught from kindy, while at work the focus on eradicating bullying has emphasised the need to have empathy for colleagues. It might seem that those that have empathy in spades would be successful, but there is another facet to this intense focus. An empathic person isn’t simply interpreting other people’s actions and feelings in a cognitive dialogue: “Oh, she’s smiling, so she’s happy.” Empathy is so much more, and it’s all to do with specialised nerve cells in our brain called mirror neurones. These cells not only show us how other people are acting and feeling; they make us act and feel the same. If you smile, my mirror neurones make me smile, too. Marco Iacoboni, a neuroscientist at the University of California, suggested in a recent interview for Scientific American that these cells provide “some kind of inner imitation of the actions of other people”: therefore, other people’s feelings aren’t simply readable, they are contagious. Being with someone who’s happy makes us happy but being with someone sad makes us sad. The more empathic you are; the more intensely your mirror neurones allow you to feel another’s pain, and the more potential damage is done to your wellbeing.
To keep our mood healthy, we need to develop awareness of how other people make us feel and also when we need to change a situation and protect ourselves.
1. Hang out with happy people This is going to have a fabulous effect on mirror neurones. Make an effort to have fun times with people who make you feel good, often.
2. Learning limits Most people like to support those they care about but we also need to have limits. If someone close to you is suffering, be supportive but also take time away from these difficult emotions to nurture yourself.
3. Know when you’re low When we're overwhelmed, empathy can go into overdrive, making us more vulnerable to another’s pain; we also actually lose our ability to be helpful to someone else. Suggesting a friend see a counsellor or ring a helpline may be better for you and for them if you know you don’t have much to give.
4. Watch what you watch Mirror neurones don’t just work in a face-to-face situation. Watching upsetting events on TV or being immersed in a sad or frightening movie can activate our own distress and anxiety. Ensure you watch a balance of positive and negative entertainment and know when to turn off that tearjerker.
5. Switch off The best way to maintain your mood stability in the face of other people's distress is to take time to be alone. When you are by yourself, mirror neurones have a chance to rest. It can be hard to find space for yourself, particularly if you are an extrovert. However, if you can carve out regular time to relax, enjoy your own company and look after yourself, you will ultimately be the most supportive partner, friend, mum or dad or sibling you can possibly be.