Empathy—that ability to imagine how another person feels and share an emotional experience along with them—is praised as an ideal of human behavior. After all, one of the alleged hallmarks of a true psychopath is that they can’t feel empathy or don’t come by it naturally. Without empathy, how can we understand what the marginalized and the suffering go through? Social scientists believe that empathy originates, evolutionarily, as a series of “prosocial” behaviors, essential glue that helps humans stick together for increased survival.
Yet, more recently, psychologists and neuroscientists alike have begun to take a radically different stance on the empathy-is-good line of thinking. In fact, over-empathizing might be making us emotionally burned out and unwell, leading to such states as “compassion fatigue,” or “secondary trauma,” which affects first responders and caregivers at higher rates. In these states, a person can begin to feel numb, depressed, anxious, or even inexplicably angry.