Helping other people is part of everyday life, whether you’re extending a hand to a family member or a coworker or at your after-work volunteer gig. Helping can be incredibly rewarding. But it can also be harmful—to yourself—if you’re the kind of person who’s always helping others without setting emotional boundaries.
Putting yourself into the shoes of another person is a strategy for empathy that you’ve heard touted since daycare days. But it might actually not be the best way to empathize with someone who needs your help.
Especially for folks who are very empathetic, it’s instinctive to try to see a bad situation from the position of the person who’s experiencing it. But taking the perspective of the person who is suffering—taking on their emotions as your own—can be detrimental to your own mental health, according to research led by the University of Pennsylvania’s Anneke E. K. Buffone, the lead research scientist on the World Well-Being Project.
It might feel selfish to want to maintain a little distance from a problem when you’re asked to help, but it can actually help you feel better and stay calmer in a stressful situation. Different types of empathy actually have different physical effects on the body of the empathetic person.
Buffone found that we actually experience a physiological fight-or-flight response of our own when we step into the shoes of the person we’re trying to help.
“This is the first time we have physical evidence that putting yourself in someone else’s shoes is potentially harmful,” Buffone said to the university.
So what’s a more productive way to help? Rather than taking on the problem as your own, reflect on how the struggling person might feel. After all, you can’t ever really know how another person is feeling—you can only imagine what’s going through their mind. When you don’t allow for any boundaries, you’ll find yourself projecting your own assumptions and worries onto someone else’s problem, getting too invested to have any helpful perspective.
Remaining empathetic while keeping a little distance actually causes the helper to have a healthy, positive physiological response to the situation rather than a stressed one, Buffone’s research found.
Not only will keeping your emotional distance prevent you from getting as stressed out, it will also allow you to be a better helper—you’ll be able to concentrate better on the problem at hand rather than spending your energy getting flustered.
“A classic analogy is taking an exam,” Buffone said. “You either feel like you’ve got it or you feel like you don’t. If you don’t, you’re going to be in that threat state; you encounter a question that throws you off, you get nervous, you get hot, you get sweaty and you can’t think. If you feel like you’ve got this, you’re calm,. Your heart may still be pounding and you may be writing fast, but you still feel confident.
When we consider the situation with a little more distance, you’re feeling concern, compassion and a desire to help, but you don’t feel exactly what that other person is feeling.”
Have you ever heard of cortisol? It’s a stress hormone that occurs naturally in your body. The fight-or-flight response that’s triggered by putting yourself in another person’s shoes is associated with the release of cortisol in your body.
Too much cortisol released over a long period—also the result of chronic stress—can actually mess up your body’s natural functions. It’s linked to a slew of health problems, including anxiety, depression, digestive issues, headaches, heart disease, sleep problems, weight gain and memory and concentration impairment, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Buffone said people whose careers are contingent on empathizing—nurses, doctors, counselors and teachers, for example—need to be especially careful about how exactly they’re empathizing. They’re put in these difficult helping situations daily.
“Empathy is very important, and for a lot of care givers probably is the reason they chose their field,” Buffone said. “We don’t have to teach our medical professionals to suppress that emotional response; we just have to try to help them have the right kind of response, thinking of others as opposed to thinking how they would feel in the same situation.”
Katie Moritz is Rewire’s senior editor and a Pisces who enjoys thrift stores, rock concerts and pho. She covered politics for a newspaper in Juneau, Alaska, before driving down to balmy Minnesota to help produce long-standing public affairs show “Almanac” at Twin Cities PBS. Now she works on this here website. Reach her via email at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @katecmoritz.