Is Your Helping Helpful? 5 Truths about Misplaced Empathy

We know it, we feel it, we see it happen all too many horrible times. Tragedy strikes, and we think… not again. It consumes the news. Everywhere we turn we see and hear the stories, and they pull at our hearts. We can’t imagine ourselves in this situation. We can't stop talking about it… there is a strong desire to do something to help.  

Stop and think about that truth. The pain we feel and the need to help is triggered. It’s an essential human reaction.  It’s how we should feel. It’s how we are wired. It’s Empathy. It’s good. But it’s what we do next that matters most.

Misplaced Empathy happens when we take this tug at our heart and act on it in a way that does not achieve its desired effect of helping those most impacted and hurting from this event. Misplaced Empathy comes into play when there was nobody specific identified to help; instead this response is bucketed with hundreds or thousands of other similar responses.  Misplaced Empathy happens when what we did to help actually creates an added burden to a community already suffering.  Misplaced Empathy allows us to feel good and move on with our lives. But what about those who are hurting the most from this tragedy? Did they benefit from your action?

Here are 5 Truths about Misplaced Empathy:

1.    The human reaction to help is good.  This is really essential. When we see people hurting, we should feel sadness and pain in our own hearts.  Empathy. It’s so badly needed in our world today. So, when you feel it, hold on to it tight and think how best you can act on this impulse. 

2.    There is a desire to help with a visible tragedy- We watch as people feel compelled to help with nationally televised tragedies. It’s good that this empathy is awakened. But why are we sometimes focused on helping out tragedies across the country more than ones in our own communities? Could it be that sometimes people like to help to be able to say they helped with these visible tragedies? Is it because it’s easy to act on something we are constantly reading and hearing about? Or is it really just simply that we are not aware of any downside? 

3.    There is a need to act immediately – Have you ever noticed how “front loaded” most tragedy responses are? Everything happens within the first month. The impulse to act is there and so it’s acted on quickly and sometimes without much thought.  A quick credit card donation to an organization you assume is good, but really don’t know how your money will be used. Old clothes dropped off by the garbage bagful at local collection points. But I would encourage you to ask yourself “why the rush”? Just one quick and not fun fact - it can take up to 4 years to rebuild a home lost by a tornado or hurricane. The amount of red tape one has to go through with insurance companies is mind blowing. Why are we in such a rush to help at the very time when it could be least noticed or appreciated?

4.    It can actually create an added burden – In the case of the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary, so much “stuff” was sent that it filled a warehouse. According to a recent report from Scott Simon of NPR, over 67,000 Teddy Bears were sent to Newtown CT in the weeks following the tragic event, not to mention thousands and thousands of boxes of toys, blankets, scarfs, bikes & books. Imagine the number of hours and volunteers it took to re-box these “gifts” and find other homes for them.  

5.    The people hurting the most are sometimes not the beneficiaries of this support – Trauma recovery lasts years and years. Most people who are at the center of tragedy will never “get over it” as we sometimes hope and think they do. The more “front loaded” the support is, the less likely it will go to those isolated away in pain and suffering. It’s a cruel reality that those hurting the most are sometimes not the beneficiary of any of this early support.  They need to be remembered and helped months and years after the event.

So, the next time you feel that tug on your heart, stop and think.  Really think about how you can best respond without falling into the Misplaced Empathy trap. Find someone to personally help.  Use a time of tragedy to form a one on one long term bond with someone that desperately needs help. Think back to tragedies that happened last year or the year before and those that are still not back on their feet. I guarantee you they can still use the love and support. And if donating is the best way you can help, look for organizations that use a dollar in, dollar out formula of helping people one on one in their times of crisis. 

We are living in a world of loneliness, sadness and crisis all around us - that’s the bad news. The good news is that this awakens empathy. A wonderful human trait. And you have it. 

Place it well. 

Jen Marr is Founder & CEO of Inspiring Comfort LLC.  Learn more about how to comfort one on one at