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Dear Heidi: Is there a limit to empathy?

When you put yourself in someone else’s shoes, how long should you stay there? Can you overstay your welcome?

The simple answer is, it’s complicated. Yes, of course, we all want to be empathetic and understand where someone else is coming from. We look at their situation, we try to understand how they must feel, and then we offer them something — kind words, acknowledgement, a hug (they’ll make a come back, just you wait!), or maybe we offer some form of help. We know when to begin to be empathetic — when we learn of someone’s situation. But we don't always know when to end, or should there be an end?

For example, let's say your friend lost their job during the pandemic and is having a hard time emotionally and financially. You know they're struggling, so you reach out to them and ask how they are doing? Sometimes merely listening is a great gift. You can take it further and acknowledge that, yes. they are in a rough spot through no fault of their own. The pandemic created a lot of untenable change — acknowledgment is another gift.

You can find out what your friend needs by asking, and if you’re willing and able, perhaps you offer some help. If they need someone to listen, you’re perfect for the job. On the other hand, your friend may need financial help — something you cannot do or are not comfortable offering. You can tell your friend that you are not in a situation to offer financial help, but you can always lend an ear.

So, let's say your friend takes you up on the latter, but it evolves into calling you all the time, at all hours, just to vent. At some point, your empathy wears thin because you are busy, and you’ve heard it all before. Have you stopped being empathetic? Is there a limit to what you are willing to do?

These are tough questions that deserve serious consideration. You may consider how close of friends you are. Are other emotions coming into play? Is this help/venting really helpful to your friend? Or, is this beginning to hurt your friendship? Only you can answer these questions, but I will give you a personal story to help with your deliberations.

I was in what I thought was an untenable situation, and I had a decision to make. It was packed full of family emotions, heartbreaks, and memories. I struggled severely for several years to decide what to do. I would talk to my close friends, and even a stranger, if they’d listen, about what I should do. The answer was always easy to everyone but myself — remember, there were a lot of emotions involved. It became clear that when I’d bring up the subject, friends would change the subject or politely say to me, “Yes, you’ve mentioned that before.” It didn’t hit me at the time, but they were sick to death of hearing me talk about this. They were all long past it.

Finally, I made a decision and afterward my friends were more relieved than I. My friends told me they had been worried about me, that the process of making my decision had “changed” me, and they were glad to have the “old” me back. I had no idea I had changed, or frankly, that I talked about it incessantly.

In retrospect, how lucky was I to have such wonderfully loyal and loving friends who endured my endless macerations of what I should do? They never gave up on me, and when they were sick and tired of hearing the same story again, they very nicely brought up something else. Or, they let me know I’d said that before — probably a thousand times.

So, is there a limit to empathy? I think it depends on the situation. Fortunately, my friends’ empathy endured, although they did change the subject a lot and dropped little hints. I suppose my friends’ empathy did have limits, but how wonderful that I am surrounded by such terrific people? I sincerely wish the same for you.


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