Empathy Hurts, Sometimes

September 22, 2015
by Cathy Boyce

I went to social work school. The department I studied in embraced an anti-oppressive/critical perspective to social work practice. As budding workers we were taught to identify our social location; to be accountable to our audience and to the topics we were addressing in our assignments. As a young, privileged, white woman, this was a new way of thinking for me. Although I would rather not admit this, it took some adjusting. I had to dig deep to challenge assumptions and beliefs I had long taken as truths. Coming to understand that I was inherently racist and that my privileged experience originated by virtue of systemic oppression rocked my very core. But ultimately, I came to adore dynamic class conversations and heated evening dialogues with colleagues over a beer. While I waded through what it meant to become a professional helper I recognized that my dedication to love and to the expression of empathy were unwavering. My fresh awareness of social justice left me equipped to take on the world.

I went out into the field with the confidence and naiveté of a newbie. I started my work at a grassroots winter shelter, which was accessed primarily by men who had spent much of their lives on the streets. Some needed a warm bed and diligent eyes to watch over them as they slept, making sure they were laying in the recovery position. Others were in between jobs without a stable housing situation. All of them had experienced pain and loss. I loved working at the shelter. I was regaled with many stories of past lives and incidents on the streets. Their tales and their energy captivated me. Though working predominantly with men did at times come with sexually laden comments and inappropriate advances, I enjoyed my work for the most part.

I have worked in contexts in which people’s pain is palpable. As a person who is highly sensitive to the feelings of others, I tend to gravitate to these situations. I enjoy the feeling of intense emotion. I have worked in a youth shelter as well as in other residential contexts. Working in someone’s living space provides a perspective that therapists or other service providers may not be privy to. Emotions are raw; there seems to be a constant intermingling between feelings of safety and danger.

I attempt as much as I can to cultivate a social work practice and lifestyle that is reflexive; my self-narrative is constantly evolving as I reflect on life encounters. As such, there are a few things that continue to challenge me as I consider my role as a professional helper. After a few years in the field I still find it difficult to maintain a social justice perspective while working within a corrupt system. Do we challenge the system at the potential detriment of the folks with whom we work or do we make use of the tools that are provided to us within a faulty system in order to serve our clients? How possible is collaborative community work when I am working within an institution that does not necessarily value open partnership and dialogue?

Another major issue that I grapple with is the role of empathy in my work, in relationships, and in society as a whole. Empathy plays an essential role in the way we interact with each other. Empathy can become a powerful tool while working with folks who have difficulty processing their strong emotions. Using validation to create a space in which people feel that their stories are real and accepted can foster rapport and trust. Unfortunately we do not live in a society that values love and empathy. My “clients” have often come from what bell hooks calls backgrounds of “lovelessness.” I believe in building relationships and being genuine in my work with the folks who use the services I provide (although I try to come from a place of humility as I write this I am aware that my privilege permeates my every word.) But my perpetual struggle is this: How do I create a collaborative space in which empathy and love are acceptable when the people I work with often come from places of deep hurt and pain?

At this point in my career I have taken a step back to acknowledge these complexities. The type of work I do could be contextualized as “high risk,” to use the mainstream term. In my five years of work in this field, I have experienced physical violence and threats to my safety that have led me to this point of reflection. As I remember these traumas I think about how I have used my privilege in ways that were potentially damaging. Had the care and empathy I provided in these cases created an unsafe space for the clients because they misconstrued it as love? Did I allow them to act out in violence towards me because I cultivated a loving/caring/empathic relationship? Did their dysfunctional upbringings, their association of love with abuse allow them to encroach on my physical safety? What pain do I bring to my work that transfers to the people I work with? Is this the work I should be doing? How much more vicarious trauma and physical violence can I absorb? How do these painful stories impact my ability to provide empathy in my work as well as in my personal relationships? As Szalavitz and Perry ask, “Can you feel empathic toward others— but fail to act that way because their pain overwhelms you?”

The cultivation of love and empathy are essential if we are to grow as a community but nurturing them within a corrupt world brings a plethora of complications. “Learn to be comfortable with discomfort” my social work professors used to say.

Yeah… I’m uncomfortable.

Further Reading

hooks, bell. (2001). All about love: New visions. New York: Perennial.

Perry, B.; Szalavitz M., (2010). Born Born For Love: Why Empathy Is Essential–and Endangered. Harper Collins Publishers.

Fellows & Razack., (1998). “Race to Innocence. Confronting Hierarchical Relations Among Women.” Journal of Gender, Race and Justice.


Cathy Boyce is a community social worker living New Brunswick.  She loves her cats, anything floral, wine and writing.  You can read more of her writings at oublierpas.tumblr.com or follow her on Instagram at instagram.com/cathyboyce.


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3 Comments on "Empathy Hurts, Sometimes"

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Lorraine Endicott
I enjoyed reading this article, but I think the author’s idea that she is being empathetic in her work as a social worker is off base. She is clearly a very sensitive person. But, as she makes clear, she has not personally experienced the pain that those she works with have experienced. Empathy is knowing what others are feeling because you have experienced the same thing yourself (i.e. racism). Sympathy, on the other hand, is expressing care and concern for others in pain. I believe she is practising sympathy, through her work, which is a good thing. I think the… Read more »
Cathy Boyce
Hi Lorraine, Thank you for your response. I appreciate the feedback but I still believe that I am attempting to express empathy in my work. Although I have not experienced oppressive through racism, ableism, homophobia etc. I believe that it is still possible to express empathy. Empathy as opposed to sympathy is a process through which we connect as human beings. It is about allowing yourself to be vulnerable and step into the experience. Instead of pushing someone’s pain away when they share something really difficult with you, you embrace it and share in their vulnerability. It is most definitely… Read more »
I was overjoyed to stumble upon this article because I feel that it captured exactly what I have been feeling throughout my journey to becoming a social worker as well. Currently I am a Trent University student where humility and anti-oppressive practice serve as the backbones of my program. This year I have had many opportunities for self-reflection and however positive this may be, it has also ignited an intense fears and anxieties about how I will manage in this profession once I graduate. Thank you so much for validating my feelings, and for making me feel like I’m not… Read more »

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