Sunday, November 28, 2010

Pros and Cons of Empathy

By Mary DeMuth

I had the privilege of taking the Strengths Finder when we were church planters in France. I remember three of my strengths today:

1. Achiever. (Oh how this makes sense! Those of you who have read my writing or heard me speak know I tend to equate my worth with what I produce.

2. Communicator. (Yep, this makes sense. I'm almost a hyper-communicator, written and spoken.)

3. Empathy. (I actually think this one was #2, something that surprised the person who administered the test. "You don't see a lot of achieving empathizers," he said.)

Empathy is where I get in trouble. While I love that God has made me empathetic, it does have its negatives.

Positive: I can meet someone and almost always assess their emotional state.Negative: If someone is distraught, it's hard for me to get beyond that. I tend to take in their pain, feel it, and then never let go.Positive: I listen well and help people feel understood.

Negative: I can't get a person's sad story out of my head. It replays. It affects my mood.

Positive: I can see potential problems and discern people's hearts in a few meetings.

Negative: This can make me overly cautious around people, or I can enmesh myself.

Here's the odd part of empathy for me. Although it endears me to folks, and folks to me, it can be isolating. And it can break my heart. Proverbs 4:23 says: "Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life."

When I receive people's family secrets for My Family Secret, I cringe. For the moment, I am with the person, feeling the pain, dying inside, wishing and praying for healing. It's hard for me to shrug the pain off. Yesterday when I was a guest on Moody Midday Connection, we received three calls, all very, very hard to hear. Tales of abuse. Unmentionable pain. Broken lives. In the aftermath of the interview, I received several emails of folks sharing their broken hearts, their fractured stories. I couldn't shake the sadness. I kept it to myself. And I felt alone, carrying a burden way too heavy.I need to guard my empathetic heart. (And please hear me when I say I'm not 100% empathetic. I fail in this area also).

I need to throw my burdens at Jesus' feet. And I need to learn how to cast others' burdens there as well. Only then will my load lighten.

But even as I type this, I wonder. How must Jesus feel? He possesses the most empathy on earth and heaven. Hebrews 4:15 says, “This High Priest of ours understands our weaknesses, for he faced all of the same testings we do, yet he did not sin.” He understands. He shoulders. He knows. He’s been here. What must it be like to be Jesus? He knows EVERY painful story of every single human being. Even the secret stories. And he graciously bears them all.

My own inability to bear the weight just makes me love him more.

Mary DeMuth is an author and speaker who loves to help people turn trials to triumphs. She lives in Texas with her husband and three kids. Find out more at Twitter: @MaryDeMuth, Facebook: You can find the My Family Secrets blog referenced in this article at


  1. Wow. I like that perspective. So rarely hear the negative side of empathy. I can relate. I appreciate the admonition from Scripture to "guard my heart" and cast my burdens on Jesus feet. I too often carry burdens not meant for me to carry. Thank you.

  2. Anonymous, I'm thankful it helped. It's very hard to let go of someone's pain and issues, but sometimes we must for our own health. Jesus can carry everything much better, anyway.

  3. I SO relate! thank you for putting my own inner stress into words! I care DEEPLY, as well, and it has been a process to learn to "cast ALL my cares onto Jesus!"
    Thank you!

  4. I'm not even sure how to "guard my own heart"!
    i think of that alot!

  5. It's been hard for me to empathize lately because of my own pain getting in the way. I hurt too much to hurt with others right now. In both cases (carrying our own pain or empathizing with others), we need to lay it at the feet of Jesus. Sometimes is just takes time.

  6. Glad you've learned that important lesson, Jan.

  7. Anonymous re: guarding your heart. I'm not exactly sure of the procedure. I just do a lot of praying.

  8. Anonymous, re: your own pain. I'm so sorry to hear about your hurt. Jesus, be with her right now. Take her pain. Bear the weight.

  9. This written testimony was a gift to read. I truly felt that I was reading about myself and I could never understand why I felt exhausted emotional at the end of the week. This was a break-through for me and I will be sure to apply the scriptures to my heart and mind.....Thank you!