What exactly is the empathy limit?

During this course, I hope to learn about ethical issues which I will be facing as a student as well as a professional one day. I have already found myself in situations where I was faced with an “ethical dilemma” and had to see to it that I handled it the best way I could. I was only able to do this because on this specific occasion I had already learnt how to deal with this dilemma correctly. This made me feel professional on a student level and also proud to be practicing my work correctly and morally. This is the main outcome I would like to achieve.

Before I talk about empathy and my feelings towards it, I will first define what it means.


“Empathy is the experience of understanding another person’s condition from their perspective. You place yourself in their shoes and feel what they are feeling. Empathy is known to increase pro-social (helping) behaviours. “(Psychology Today, 2013)


With that said, empathy definitely does play a huge role in professional practice. On a day to day basis as Physiotherapists, we will be engaging, interacting and working with kaleidoscope of individuals, each with their own problems and experiences.

Alexithymics are people who have no idea what they feel themselves and are at a complete loss when it comes to knowing what anyone else around them is feeling. They are emotionally tone-deaf.

Therefore, empathy builds on self-awareness; the more open we are to our own emotions, the more skilled we will be in reading feelings and responding to them.

 Should you lie to keep from hurting a friend’s feelings? Should you keep a promise to visit a sick friend or accept a last minute invitation to a dinner party instead? When should a life support system be kept going for someone who would otherwise die?

These moral questions are posed by the empathy researcher Martin Hoffman, who argues that the roots of morality are to be found in empathy, since it is empathizing with the potential victims. Beyond this immediate link between empathy and altruism in personal encounters, Hoffman proposes that the same capacity for empathic affect, for putting oneself in another’s place, leads people to follow certain moral principles,

Their social poise lets them easily reach out to new people; they are comfortable enough with themselves to be open to empathetic experiences.


11 thoughts on “What exactly is the empathy limit?

  1. Hey Charde, I agree with what you said. I never thought of writing about it in this way yet. Social poise and comfort with ourselves allows us to be that person who can begin to feel empathetic if the situation calls for it. If we have these attributes then our words and actions no matter how small will automatically enrich our moral principles.


  2. Hi Charde, well written blog, very intetesting. I didn’t even know about the word “alexithymics”, thought of people that do not have the capacity of empathetic engagement, human connection and emotional reflectivity, to have psychiatric personality disorders (as Brene Brown referred to in her presentation on vulnerability)… I learned a new word, thanks! Very interesting. I also liked your reference to Hoffman’s work on empathy, morality and altruism. I further agree with the article in Psychology Today you quoted: “Empathy is known to increase pro-social (helping) behaviours”. Great stuff 🙂

    • Thanks Chantelle 🙂 I found it very interesting to relate to this topic, I think it has something to do with my experience and interaction with children. A common factor we share 🙂

  3. Hi Charde, interesting and yes I too learnt new words. To me ethics can be biased by personal values so I would be interested in how you may answer Hoffman’s questions, I am guessing your final blog may have formulated their answer? As I see it each of these questions have dependent variables, only the second one can I say definitively I would turn down the party as I can’t see a situation where a party would be more important.

    • Hey Tomarna 🙂 thanks for your comment. Answering Hoffman’s questions, I wouldn’t lie to a friend as that already shows the friendship isn’t true. As a friend I would definitely like to be there for a friend in need(sick). There’s always another time to go out. The last question I think needs to be answered by the person themselves as that is a really tough one.

      And I agree with you, personal values play a huge role in how we react in certain situations.

  4. i agree if your open to your own emotion youre more likely to handle the emotions of thise around you, but what do you do when a colleague has no social skills or cannot interact with his/her patients properly?

    • Toni:) I think that is a difficult situation because you can’t change people but you can show them what’s right in the example you set and hope that they will learn from that.

  5. Hello Charde,
    I found your post on empathy to be very thought provoking and you make some very good points. In particular, your statement that “empathy builds on self-awareness” resonated with me; and I am very pleased to have learnt a new word: Alexithymics – thank you for that!

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