When Empathy Led Me Astray

In my premarital class, our pastor had everyone take a Myers-Briggs assessment. When my husband and I both got our results, we smiled at each other: we were just one letter apart. He was an INTP (introvert, intuition, thinking, perceiving), and I was an INFP (feeling).

It made sense. Similar as our temperaments are, there’s a big difference. My husband’s a programmer, a field that demands logic and clarity. He’s smart, decisive, and forms strong opinions easily. In contrast, I can always see all sides of any given situation. I feel all the feelings. 

But my empathy sometimes felt like waffling. Sit me down with someone of opposing views, and I would, chameleon-like, find my stance shifting to mirror theirs.

I liked my empathy, but I wanted more of a rudder. I said I valued justice, but I hesitated to take any action towards it. How could I be decisive enough when I could so easily convince myself I was wrong?

Empathy’s Achilles Heel

Then, in recent years, I started reading about how too much empathy can be a bad thing.

At first, I bristled at that idea. But reading more and more about this, a light bulb clicked on. Yes, it’s awesome to feel compassion and understand different points of view. But not so much that my own self disappears.

Overactive empathy means not developing proper boundaries. It means not learning what you actually think and feel apart from other people.

In other words, I did need a rudder.

To develop boundaries, I used a lot of different tools. Therapy (two years of every-other-week). Books. Conversations with friends, blogs.

But my favorite, favorite tool to figure out boundaries has been advice columns.

Dear Abby and Me

I am a little obsessive about advice columns. Every morning, I make my breakfast (the same breakfast: two eggs, toast, tea), I ignore my children, and I read the latest column until someone taps my shoulder, demanding actual parenting.

Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays are devoted to the newspaper columns by Carolyn Hax, Amy Davidson and Judith Martin of Miss Manners. Tuesdays and Thursdays are Dear Prudence days. And Saturday, I make extra tea and read Carolyn Hax’s decadently long live chat.

Dear Sugar? Well, I gobbled up that book in about twenty minutes, and felt really angry I didn’t know about The Rumpus when Sugar was active. (Though I just found the podcast! Thanks, Cheryl!)

Prufrock measured out his life with coffee spoons. I measure mine by agony columns.

I once thought I liked advice columns because they offered endless crazy stories. I mean, you can’t make this stuff up. People offended by Caesar salad! Stepdaughters who hate their stepmothers but demand they babysit! Ex-husbands still living with a couple when the new guy proposes!

Advice columns are the Montel Williams of the written word.

The Hidden Brilliance of Advice Columnists

But to my surprise, when I started therapy, I realized most of what my therapist told me I’d already read in advice columns:

  • It’s okay to upset people.
  • Speak up clearly about what you need.
  • Being punitive is abusive.
  • Forgiveness is not the same thing as reconciliation.
  • It’s not okay to ask for gifts on your wedding invite. (Okay, my therapist didn’t mention this. Just a note: I am registered at Amazon. Gift cards accepted, as is cash.)

There is no substitute for a good therapist. No substitute. But there’s also no substitute for getting advice from peers. Advice—from friends or columnists—tells us we’re not alone in being rudderless, confused, and out at sea. Good advice reminds us that ordinary people, with help, can make their lives and loves better.

I realized that I loved advice columns because they taught me how to find my rudder. In them, I saw that I could love others without losing myself. I started seeing, story-by-story, that there is always a way to love well, no matter how difficult the situation. And I started finding my own direction, regardless of what others thought.

Integrity is what I learned from Sugar, and Prudie, and Carolyn, and Amy. Integrity in all senses of the word: in having my insides match my outsides, in standing up for my deepest values, knowing where I end and other people begin.

My Crazy-Cool Announcement . . . And Your Job

Next month, I’m starting a monthly advice column here at The Mudroom. I’m calling it “Dear Portia,” in honor of the wily woman in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice who argues for mercy. It also echoes the word portal, in honor of our new tagline, enter in. (I’m a sucker for a good connotation.)

Every month, I’ll answer questions related to that month’s theme. My March column will cover questions related to sex, sexuality, and singleness (oh, my!)

You can help by sending me your thorny life problems. I’ll brew tea and commiserate.

Look, I’m not an expert on much, except maybe advice columns themselves. I’m a peer, not a therapist. But I love giving advice. My hope is that together, we can consider some hard questions and learn how to find our own rudders.

You can email me your questions here: heather.caliri@gmail.com. I look forward to hearing from you!

Heather Caliri
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4 thoughts on “When Empathy Led Me Astray

  1. Well this explains a lot…about empathy and me feeling like a waffler. Looking forward to the advice column too. Guess I should have been reading them all along 😉

  2. Oh man. I LOVE advice columns and am glad to know I’m not alone. How true about the boundaries they demonstrate. Looking forward to your column!

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