Empathetic Detachment- what is it and how can it help?

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If you find yourself personally carrying the emotional weight of many lives, this might be a helpful time to learn about empathetic detachment.

With empathetic detachment, we can care about what is going on, without taking personal responsibility for outcomes that are beyond our control.

Empathetic detachment allows us to have empathy while also maintaining boundaries, giving us a clearer view of what really is within our ability to control, and allowing us the space to take meaningful action instead of emotional action.

Think of empathetic detachment as the ability to see a situation or person and care about the outcomes without feeling the need to immediately get involved or alter the outcome. It’s like taking a step back, to see the whole story.

Think about it in terms of watching a movie with characters you really LOVE, and you are truly invested in. You truly care about their story and what happens to them. But you understand that you can’t actually change any part of their story-and you aren’t foolish enough to try- you aren’t a part of their story.

Seeing it in this way can remove the urgency to act and give us a minute to think about the correct meaningful action. And we are talking about real people, so another part of empathetic detachment is recognizing where, when, how, and if you can provide meaningful action.

And you already know how to do this! We engage in empathetic detachment when we hear of a horrible natural disaster, war, or violence in another place. We empathize with and ache for the human loss there and we decide where, when, how and if, to send support, but we understand that we can’t take personal responsibility for lives lost hundreds of miles away.

Meaningful action is better than emotional action in these situations. Emotional action might lead to impulsive things like starting organizations without checking to see if there is already an organization filling that specific need. Meaningful action would support organizations already operating to help with the problem. Practicing empathetic detachment helps us to engage in more meaningful action and less emotional action.

Like all good things, empathetic detachment can be a problem. For example, if it keeps us from acting when action is necessary. We can become comfortable “caring” about a cause and doing nothing to help it. If we become too detached, we lose the ability to empathize. Empathetic detachment is not disengaged, it is simply not ruled by panic or urgency. If you find yourself detached emotionally and not caring about things, that is something different, and I hope you talk to someone about that.

But right now, with things feeling so uncertain, I hope that you try to practice empathetic detachment and meaningful action. Maybe it will help you!

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