Back in college, I based my Division III (senior thesis) research on a set of empathy studies by Nancy Eisenberg. Eisenberg’s line of research hinges on a distinction between two different kinds of empathy: empathic concern, the ability to recognize and care about the hurt others feel, and personal distress, the experiencing of the other person’s hurt yourself. Counterintuitively, personal distress is not positively associated with helping behavior. In fact, it may even decrease the likelihood of helping, if there’s an easy escape route away from the empathy-provoking situation.
There’s a related line of research by June Tangney into the difference between shame and guilt. As Tangney and Jessica Tracey summarize:
Shame is an acutely painful emotion that is typically accompanied by a sense of shrinking or “being small,” and by a sense of worthlessness and powerlessness. Shamed people also feel exposed. Although shame does not necessarily involve an actual observing audience to witness one’s shortcomings, there is often the imagery of how one’s defective self would appear to others. […]Guilt, in contrast, is typically a less painful, devastating experience because the object of condemnation is a specific behavior, not the person as a whole. One’s core identity or self concept is less at stake. Rather than feeling a need to defend a vulnerable self-image under attack, people experiencing guilt are focused on the offense and its consequences, feeling tension, remorse, and regret over the “bad thing done.”
Just as empathy-induced personal distress may get in the way of helping behavior, shame-induced distress may play a causal role in antisocial behavior. Research has found that a tendency towards shame responses rather than guilty responses predicts recidivism.
Some people advocate for emotion-free, ‘rational’ decision-making. Others refuse to repress their emotions, and draw strength from their anger, their fear, their hope, their pride. For me, the distinction between personal distress and empathic concern, and between shame and guilt, provides a way of reconciling these two approaches.
I embrace my emotions, but try to see them as separate from my identity: what I feel doesn’t change who I am. This distance helps me to respond to my emotions more appropriately. When I get angry, I ask myself: “Why am I angry? What is provoking this anger? Will taking action X address the problem that is provoking the anger, or will it just be cathartic?” This helps me to make choices that I’m less likely to regret.