Empathy’s Evil Twin
Understand and manage the monitoring of emotions.
Posted January 6, 2020 | Reviewed by Kaja Perina
Empathy – the capacity to place oneself in another's position – is one of the most impactful human abilities. It allows for interpersonal connection, bonding, and a sense of belonging – the essential ingredients for strong mental health. Empathy, however, has an evil twin, which I call “emotion monitoring.” This is the tendency to continually monitor the emotional states of others, while sacrificing attunement to one’s own emotional states. The difference between empathy and emotion monitoring is that empathy requires a clear external stimulus; it is a reaction to someone else’s situation. Emotion monitoring, on the other hand, is a constant, often subconscious, scanning or monitoring of others’ emotional states in order to anticipate any negative feelings they might experience. The goal is to know what they might be feeling so as to avoid making them uncomfortable. With emotion monitoring, there is a sense of anticipation, and because that anticipation is constant, one’s own emotion state gets neglected.
Emotion monitoring is also not to be confused with the psychological construct “theory of mind” (Premack & Woodruff, 1978). Theory of mind is valuable in that it allows one to think about both one’s own mental state and that of others. Imagine a job interview. In this case, it is vital to be vigilant about the thoughts and feelings of the person sitting across from you. Taking a moment to mentally step into your potential employer’s shoes should increase the chances of the interaction going well.
However, some people exist in a near-constant state of emotion monitoring. I’ve seen this a great deal in working with patients who are women, who come from a group that has historically been devalued, and/or who have experienced childhood trauma. Adult patients who grew up in a family in which the needs of others far outweighed the needs of the patient also tend to be emotion monitors. Take, for example, a woman who grew up with a rageful father. As a child, she became highly attuned to his moods and emotion states. She learned to minimize her own feelings so as not to rock the boat. A sharp focusing of her internal energies on her father’s moods led to a generalized tendency to engage in emotion monitoring across most of her interpersonal interactions. This means that today as an adult, she has trouble making sense of her own needs and has difficulty interacting with authenticity because while in the company of others, her focus is glued to how the other person is feeling and reacting to her.
When someone’s “natural” state is that of hyper-awareness of how the other is feeling, much of that own person’s inner experience is lost. Attunement to one’s own inner world is sacrificed in order to emotionally caretake others. In working with patients who engage in emotion monitoring, I have seen how this can wreak havoc on one’s sense of self, self-esteem, and general mood. When you are so focused on the emotional needs of others that you lose sight of your own, there is no one left to emotionally caretake you. This is why for people who emotion monitor like the woman with the rageful father, even everyday interpersonal interactions can feel entirely depleting. It is exhausting to constantly audit the feelings of others.
Often those who emotion monitor are not aware of this habit. It feels normal for their energy to be directed outward rather than inward. Individuals who do this often gained the ability as a means to remain safe, and they sometimes still need to emotion monitor in order to survive unsafe situations. More often than not, however, those who emotion monitor have already left or overcome these situations, but the lever to observe others' emotions is stuck in high gear. For these individuals, gaining awareness of their tendency to emotion monitor so that the direction of attention can become more balanced yields major rewards.
By easing up on emotion monitoring, social interactions can become more spontaneous. They can also become more authentic as one starts to react to others with their own feelings rather than first scanning the other’s feelings and reacting in kind. By decreasing unnecessary monitoring, interpersonal interactions become less depleting overall, and lessening of emotion monitoring can therefore increase one’s motivation to be socially engaged. All of these combined can work to increase self-esteem and decrease symptoms that are often tied to depression and social anxiety.
For those who tend to feel uncomfortable or worn out by social events, emotion monitoring could be the culprit. For those who struggle to assert their own needs, wants, and ideas for fear that someone else might be uncomfortable, the same culprit might be to blame. Additionally, clinicians would be wise to consider a tendency to engage in emotion monitoring as a source of their patient’s distress, especially if such patients’ early experiences necessitated anticipation of others’ needs over their own. Taking emotion monitoring into account is another way to understand that developing a mechanism to refocus one’s energies inward can provide space for significant growth.
Premack, D., & Woodruff, G. (1978). Does the chimpanzee have a theory of mind?. Behavioral and Brain Sciences. 1 (4): 515–526.