The Reverse Effects of Toxic Empathy

There’s a fine line between empathy and enabling. Sometimes, it’s easy to forget that it exists.

The Reverse Effects of Toxic Empathy
Photo by Marcelo Matarazzo on Unsplash

There’s a fine line between empathy and enabling. Sometimes, it’s easy to forget that it exists.

In college, my roommate Nijara had a tumultuous relationship with her boyfriend, Vishal. He was struggling with bad grades and continuously kept lashing at her — as if spending time together was the sole reason his grades were low.

We were only eighteen then, and it was Nijara’s first relationship. She believed if Vishal left her, she would never find anyone as good. So, she kept letting him treat her badly, even apologizing for his failures when she clearly had no hand in the outcome.

She thought the only way to be empathic was to behave as if she was solely responsible for his happiness. And even though she poured her heart and soul into it, the relationship never got any better. Vishal kept performing poorly and getting mad at her as if it was her fault — until one day, they could no longer function as a couple.

Nijara was devastated, and it broke me to see her like that. But even then, naive though I was, I understood that the extent to which she let him walk over her wasn't healthy. I knew she would cry a lot now, but in the long run, she and Vishal would be better off without each other.

Looking back, I realize their relationship was probably emotionally abusive, with Nijara being the enabler. How could I have been blind to something so obvious?

When someone you care for is struggling, it’s hard to distinguish between empathic and enabling behavior. This article looks at the science behind the two and raises some important questions to help you ponder over your choices.

If you know they are on a path to self-destruction, step in without hesitation.

First of all, what is empathy?

The term “empathy” is used to describe a wide range of experiences. Scientists generally define empathy as the ability to sense other people’s emotions, coupled with the ability to imagine what someone else might be thinking or feeling. Researchers differentiate between two types of empathy:

  • Affective empathy refers to the feelings we get in response to others’ emotions. This can include the inability to feel happiness when we detect another’s fear or anxiety.
  • Cognitive empathy refers to our ability to identify and understand other people’s emotions without letting them greatly affect our mood.

Empathy is a valuable tool in relationships as it helps us connect more deeply with other people. As author Pep Streep writes in Psychology Today, “Empathy is the bedrock of intimacy and close connection; in its absence, relationships remain emotionally shallow, defined largely by mutual interests or shared activities.”

Provide them a safe space, but don’t give them the permission to act in a way that you know will harm them in the long run.

To what extent is empathy important in relationships?

My friend Nijara found herself unable to rejoice in her own successes, especially when her boyfriend was facing so much trouble. This might have been a case of extreme affective empathy.

In essence, empathy is important as it allows us to give space to the other person and keep our biases away from the situations they’re in. But to what extent is being empathic healthy in a relationship? Here’s what science has to say:

Empathy isn’t about intuition

A 2006 study published in The Scientific World Journal suggests that empathy involves both emotion sharing and executive control to regulate and modulate this experience. The awareness of a distinction between the experiences of the self and others constitutes a crucial aspect of empathy.

This is why it’s so important to draw healthy boundaries, especially to protect yourself from the pain a loved one is undergoing.

“Boundaries are like the walls of a sandcastle. The second we let one fall over, the rest of them come crashing down.”
— Greg McKeown, Essentialism

But what is enabling?

Healthline defines an “enabler” as someone whose behavior allows a loved one to continue self-destructive patterns of behavior. This term can be stigmatizing since there’s often negative judgment attached to it. However, many people who enable others don’t do so intentionally. They may not even realize what they’re doing.

So what are the signs your perceived empathy might actually be enabling? Here are the signs you might be exhibiting enabling behavior, according to research:

  • Even if you personally disagree with a loved one’s behavior, you might ignore it for any number of reasons.
  • Providing financial assistance — recklessly and often at the cost of your own well-being.
  • Covering for them or making excuses.
  • Taking on more than your share of responsibilities: You might be enabling a loved one if you find yourself frequently picking up their slack: doing household chores, looking after their children, or taking care of essential daily activities they leave undone.
  • Avoiding the issue and pretending as if everything is alright.
Empathy is a choice-based action fueled by your heart. Enabling (however well-intended) is fear-based and life-depleting.
Dr Yvette Erasmus

Final Words

It’s hard to see a loved one deal with pain on their own. The temptation to let them get away with just about anything might be strong, but it’s important to take care of yourself first. Provide them a safe space, but don’t give them the permission to act in a way that you know will harm them in the long run.

Of course, it’s important to respect their decisions and keep your judgment aside, especially if their choices don’t align with your values. But if you know they are on a path to self-destruction, step in without hesitation.

It’s difficult to distinguish between empathizing and enabling. Don’t make the mistake Nijara did.

“You have these lines you won’t cross. But then you cross them. And suddenly you possess the very dangerous information that you can break the rule and the world won’t instantly come to an end. You’ve taken a big, black, bold line and you’ve made it a little bit gray. And now every time you cross it again, it just gets grayer and grayer until one day you look around and you think, There was a line here once, I think.”
― Taylor Jenkins Reid, Daisy Jones & The Six