The Fantastic Fix for Dating Disconnects for Excessive Empaths
Over the past 10 years, I have become increasingly curious about dating and relationships. What types of men are most successful in getting first dates? What types of men are most successful in maintaining long term relationships? What are the similarities and differences between these two groups?
I talk to a lot of men about women: how they approach women; their views on dating; what works and what doesn’t in their relationships. And what I found is fascinating.
One of the major dimensions which separated those who excel at approaching women and those who were successful in maintaining a long-term relationship is empathy. Men who are lower in empathy seem to be better at approaching women. While men who are higher in empathy (to a point) seem to be more successful at maintaining a healthy long-term relationship.
Empathy is the ability to understand or feel what another person is feeling. It is the ability to put oneself in another person’s shoes. People vary in the extent to which they experience empathy – from no empathy, to well-balanced empathy, to excessive empathy which can be harmful to self or others
Consider empathy as existing on a 10-point scale, ranging from no empathy (a 1) to well-balanced empathy (a 5) to too much empathy (a 10).
<1———————————————— 5 ————————————————- 10>
No empathy Well-balanced empathy Too much empathy
Upon interviewing dozens of male clients, I realized that many of those with low empathy seemed to excel at hooking up with women. This was because they didn’t care as much about the outcome and they weren’t stung as deeply by the rejections. They view dating and hook ups as a numbers game, similar to making sales calls. One millennial told me, “If I approach 100 women and I am rejected by 90. I still come away with 10 phone numbers.” On the other hand, guys with high empathy feel the rejection too much and learn to shy away from approaching women. One rejection for these men may sit with them for days.
At the same time, those with well-balanced empathy seemed to have the most successful long-term relationships. These men are able to separate their emotions from those of their significant other. They are also clear about their own boundaries – what their needs and wants are – and are comfortable in communicating them to their loved one. Further, empathic men are more likely to be comfortable with vulnerability which is “the birthplace of love and belonging” per Brene’ Brown. All of these are critical building blocks in a fulfilling, rewarding and sexually-satisfying long-term relationship.
Too Much Empathy
Finally, men who have too much empathy tend to sabotage their relationships early on by getting too into the relationship too quickly. These men show too much interest too soon (think of an excited puppy), thereby reducing the curiosity and interest from the other side. This dynamic rapidly becomes unattractive and “needy.”
Too much empathy also leads to overfocusing on emotions in the relationship. While emotions are great indicators of your needs and wants, they don’t always tell you the truth. For example, when jealousy comes on strong because your girlfriend got a text from a male boss about work and there is nothing else going on there besides work. So it pays to be able to let go of emotions when they are misleading. Emotions are to be listened to with an awareness that sometimes your emotions are fooling you.
Two Types of Empathy
To drill a little deeper, there is more than one type of empathy; there is
- cognitive empathy and
- emotional empathy.
Cognitive empathy is the ability to think about what the other person is experiencing.
Emotional empathy is the capacity to feel what the other person feels.
Research into people dealing in the heart of natural disasters discovered that cognitive empathy, and not emotional empathy, predicted altruistic behaviors towards disaster victims. Better perspective-taking ability (i.e., cognitive empathy) enables people to empathize with victims while protecting themselves, that is they experience less emotional suffering.
On the other hand, greater emotional empathy is related to more emotional distress, increased helplessness, and blaming of victims, which can result in avoiding a difficult situation rather than aiding others.
Too much empathy
“Help someone, you earn a friend. Help someone too much, you make an enemy.” ― Erol Ozan
It’s important to understand where you fall on the above scale of empathy., both in terms of cognitive and emotional empathy. Those who have too much cognitive empathy tend to overthink new relationships: “Why isn’t she calling me?” “Why was her last text so brief?” “She seemed irritable today. I wonder what I did to cause that.” Those who are too high in cognitive empathy also tend to communicate too frequently early on in relationships. This can be interpreted as neediness and drive off potential dates.
For example, I spoke to a friend recently who is dating again after his divorce. He is 50 years old. His pattern is to get overly excited about (nearly) every woman with whom he goes out on a date. Then, he begins obsessively thinking about her, the sex they may have shortly, and the future they might have together. He texts her too soon and too often. He calls her and leaves messages. And within 48-72 hours, the woman backs off, reading between the lines that he cares too much; in other words, she perceives him (right or wrong) as emotionally scarred and socially bankrupt.
When one feels too much emotional empathy, the stage is set for a couple of good dates to blossom quickly into love…but only in the mind of one person. And when he tells her he loves her, after four weeks of dating, she turns and runs. Too much emotional empathy can lead to misinterpreting early positive emotions in dating for true love. Too much emotional empathy makes it difficult to be patient and let things unfold at a natural pace.
“I do not ask the wounded person how he feels, I myself become the wounded person.”
― Walt Whitman
Tools to Dial Back Empathy
Reappraisal is one of the most effective strategies for turning down the volume on strong emotions. Reappraisal is the positive reinterpretation of an event that has stirred negative emotions. For example, you can remind yourself “there are hundreds of women out there for me; this one just wasn’t the right match” after an unsuccessful attempt during online dating, assuming the perspective of an emergency room doctor to minimize the emotional impact of seeing the injury of a loved one, and looking at a job layoff as an opportunity to pursue that entrepreneurial venture you’ve always wanted to try.
Visualization has been used with great results in sports psychology since the early 1950’s. It also works to manage emotion. Here are two visualizations you can use to “care less.”
a. Black Smoke, White Light
Breathe deeply into your abdomen. Breathe in for 4 seconds, hold your breath for 1-2 seconds and breathe out for 6 seconds. Repeat this breathing cycle for a minimum of 3 minutes. Breathing out for longer period of time than breathing in activates the parasympathetic nervous system which is the overseer of the relaxation response. This breathing pattern alone will help you to release negative emotions. It is designed to relax the body, reduce your heart rate and to bring your body to a peaceful state. While breathing, visualize the negative emotions leaving your body as thick, black smoke (breathe out) and positive emotional energy rushing into your body as radiant white light (breathe in).
b. Slamming the Doors
When you have a high degree of empathy, you need to develop the ability to turn it off and on. Here is one way to do just that. Visualize a force field surrounding and enveloping your body, tracing the outline of your body. When you are overly empathetic, your force field has numerous openings in it which allow both positive and negative emotional energy to enter. This means you are often picking up negative emotions from others without awareness. To counter that and to close those openings, breathe deeply, imagine you are retrieving all your positive energy from the world (e.g., from loved ones, friends, the earth, and from past accomplishments). After you have recalled your positive energy, visualize closing all the openings in your force field. When I do this, I can hear doors slamming shut. With practice, this is a powerful way to toggle your empathy off and on.
3. Maintain Boundaries
Boundaries can be physical, mental, emotional or temporal. Remind yourself that you are separate from others. Just because your friend is hurting, doesn’t mean you have to hurt also. Remind yourself, “that is her pain and I don’t need to take it in; she is separate from me.” As Byron Katie wrote, “What I like about separate bodies is that when you’re hurting, I’m not (and vice versa).” Remember that you have a conscious choice as to whether or not you take in another person’s pain and suffering. It is not selfish to protect yourself. It is good self-care. If you are drained, you have no energy with which to serve others. Take care of yourself first (and then help others!).
Recent studies from Ohio State University (May, 2016) have found an interesting side effect of the over-the-counter painkiller acetaminophen, commonly found in products such as Tylenol. Participants were given 1000 milligrams of acetaminophen, waited an hour and then given a series of short stories to read. The stories involved characters experiencing some sort of pain (e.g., losing a loved one). Participants then rated the physical and emotional pain of the characters in the stories. Results showed people who took the acetaminophen rated the pain of the characters as significantly less severe. It is not clear why this reduction occurs. We know that where people experience pain and where they imagine pain in others occurs in the same parts of the brain. So it may be that reducing real pain may reduce the perception of pain in others. Please consult your doctor before taking any medication. This article does not constitute medical advice.
5. Care Less
And the final tip for too much empathy? Care less. That’s right. Tell yourself to ‘care less.’ Make it your mantra. Play around with it. See how it works for you. This advice is only applicable to those who care too much. If you are an 8, 9 or 10 on the empathy scale, using a mantra of ‘care less’ can help to bump you down to a 6 or a 7. Don’t worry, you won’t go below a 5 as it is not in your nature. However, it is a good goal to work back towards the middle of the empathy scale. Other ideas to care less include dating more than one person at a time so that if one falls through, it’s less painful. When you do this, be sure to be honest and up front with the people whom you are dating. Also, don’t get overly attached to the outcome of dating (e.g., having a girlfriend for the holidays, not being alone, getting married, etc.). It’s just dating. Have fun. Relax and focus on what is, not what may be.
These tips take some practice and awareness. And, they have been highly effective for my clients in dating.
About the Author – Dr. John Schinnerer
Dr. John Schinnerer, an expert in positive psychology and anger management, is revolutionizing the way in which people make sense of the mind, behavior and emotion. Recently, he was one of three experts to consult with Pixar on the Academy Award-winning movie, Inside Out. He has developed a unique coaching methodology which combines the best aspects of entertainment, humor, sports psychology, positive psychology and emotional management techniques. His offices are in Danville, California. He graduated from U.C. Berkeley with a Ph.D. in educational psychology. He is an award-winning author of the book, How Can I Be Happy? He has been a speaker and coach for over 16 years. Dr. John’s blog, Shrunken Mind, was recognized as one of the top 3 in positive psychology on the web (drjohnblog.guidetoself.com). Dr. John hosts an online anger management class using positive psychology at WebAngerManagement.com. He also offers an online anxiety management class.