According to a mountain of research, a high level of empathy isn't just a 'nice to have' soft skill; it also helps you be successful in more direct ways. Empathy makes you a better leader with a more engaged team, who better understands customers and colleagues.
But just because being highly empathetic will help you get ahead, doesn't mean it is always a pleasant experience. In fact, according to new research, being deeply attuned to others' feelings might actually put your own health at risk.
More empathy = more inflammation
If there's ever a time you suffer because you care too much about another person, it's when you're the parent of a teenager, so to study the effects of high levels of empathy, researchers naturally went looking for parent and teens to track and examine. They found 247 such pairs for a study that was published last year in the journal Health Psychology.
Empathy, this research confirmed, has enormous benefits. As Jennifer Breheny Wallace reports in the Washington Post, the most highly empathetic parents not only had the happiest teens, but also benefited themselves from their caring approach, reporting a greater sense of meaning and satisfaction from their role as parents.
But there was a price to pay for those lovely outcomes. All those nights waiting up for wayward teens and days spent stressing about their setbacks and challenges meant highly empathetic parents also displayed higher levels of chronic, low-grade inflammation, a physical marker of stress that can dent your immune system and wear down a variety of essential body systems.
"Parents who readily engage with the struggles and perspectives of others may leave themselves vulnerable to additional burdens, expending physiological resources in order to better help others," the researchers noted.
That's hardly the most shocking finding in the history of science, but the extremely empathetic may feel vindicated that science has finally confirmed what many have long suspected -- caring about others is wonderful, but it can also really wear you out.
Is empathy without stress possible?
So what do you do if you're inclined towards being highly empathetic? Should you harden your heart and simply care less about others? For the reasons outlined above that's probably not a good idea (and if you're a parent, caring less probably isn't a possibility that's crossed your mind).
Thankfully, Breheny Wallace digs up several strategies that can help people maintain both their deep level of concern for others and their physical and mental health, including swapping "compassionate empathy" (understanding how other people feel) for "emotional empathy," (actually feeling what they feel) and meditation. Check out the complete article for a deeper dive into the science and the recommendations derived from it.