Advice From the Trenches

Advice from the Trenches: Life isn’t like Disney

Dear C and Dr. B; 

I’m not sure if this is a problem, but I can sense trouble coming. It’s my girlfriend, Polly. She’s the sweetest person I’ve ever known, and one of the reasons I’m with her is that she is my cheerful and quiet sanctuary in this crazy world. She believes in the good in everyone. I admit that her outlook is more suitable to living in Disneyland, but that’s what I love about her. 

The thing is, she started a new job about a month ago and it’s starting to get to her. She works in a clinic that specializes in family psychiatry, and some of the things that she’s seen there are beginning to mess with her head. In Polly’s world, no one discovers that their husband is having sex with their daughter, or secretly doing drugs, or hiding a gambling problem … and there’s definitely no suicide. But that’s what walks through the office, day after day. She’s becoming sad and quiet. There are so many other jobs she could be doing, and I am thinking of telling her to quit. I know she’d listen to me, because we have a lot of trust in our relationship and she knows I want what’s best for her. But I am also wondering if this would be what shrinks call “enabling.” I mean, I see Polly as being too good for this world and I want to protect her from hurt. But I also wonder what’s going to happen if we have kids – children, and especially teens, get into all sorts of crap and she needs to be able to handle the problems. I sort of think she does need a wake up call. But working at an office that specializes in people who are messed up and unhappy seems unnecessarily cruel, and it’s making her depressed. I worry that the craziness is catching. I’m not sure what to do. What would you do?

Dudley Doright

Dr. B says: There are studies that show empathy is directly tied to depression. Over-empathy can be delusional and unhelpful. There’s one theory that this is how serotonin antidepressants work – they turn down the volume on empathy. Over-empathy creates a state where you need others to feel good in order for you to feel good. This causes people to walk on eggshells around you and lie to you. Those with over-empathy tend to have poor boundaries and an inability say no. O-E’s take on others’ jobs and suffering as their own. This can result in the O-E getting stabbed in the back, manipulated or set up to be a scapegoat. I see Polly having not only problems with the clients, but also with her peers in the future. 

I wouldn’t suggest that she quit. First, it’s her job to decide whether to stay or go; it’s not your job to protect her reality. Second, life is life, and Polly needs to learn how to deal with suffering. Humans have a psychological immune system similar to their physiological immune system. Just as children who grow up in sterilized environments never develop any immunity to the physical environment and are vulnerable to illness as adults, people who get babied and overprotected as children may not, as adults, have any problem-solving ability or tolerance for the stress and imperfection of reality. Walking on eggshells around your girlfriend and enabling a Disneyland reality will get old. It will feel like you’re dating a child. Suffering is necessary to learn and grow. Standing in the way of another’s suffering actually results in resentment and anger over time as it infantilizes them. Remember: What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. 

C says: Over-empathizers are like bunnies caught in the headlights of life, yet I can’t help but love them. They want so badly for the world to be nice and for everyone to be happy. They wouldn’t knowingly hurt a fly. Unfortunately, they tend to cause as many problems as they “solve” if they lack real life training and a good set of coping tools. 

Working with psychologically disturbed people is a special challenge. Polly would do a helluva lot better if she got some counseling and guidance. Over-empathizers need to learn how to protect themselves and deal with crap; it doesn’t come naturally. 

There is nothing wrong with believing the best of people and trying to make the world a happy place. But we could all take a lesson from those flight attendants with the dangling oxygen masks: “Parents, in the case of an emergency, please attend to your own needs first, so that you are better able to attend to the needs of your children.” Put those masks on first, ever-empathizers. Then you can save the rest of us.

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