I’ve got this pair of white shoes that I love. But my friend, let’s say she thinks my black shoes are cooler. So we compromise. I wear one white shoe and one black shoe. I look ridiculous. Through compromise, we have achieved the worst possible outcome.

If a disagreement actually matters, it’s better to look for a third solution that is superior to either original option than it is to compromise. And if a disagreement doesn’t matter, then why is it worth arguing over in the first place? On top of that, consistent compromise just leads both people into a situation where they feel like they are always giving up some piece of themselves in order to keep the peace. That leads to resentment, the opposite of peace. There is though, a even deeper problem with compromise…

But first, let’s talk about empathy for a second. First a definition. Empathy: the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.

You can (maybe) empathize with someone who became blind, because you can close your eyes and try to understand what it would be like to experience blindness. But you cannot empathize with someone who was born blind. You have no idea how to start understanding their experience.

If you try to pretend that you can empathize with someone who was born blind, you are merely projecting.

Similarly, we all have deep values, and by that I mean deep, biological desires. And trying to empathize with someone who has very different deep values is going to work about as well as trying to empathize with someone born blind.

You can respect. You can accept. You can intellectually realize that someone is different from you. You can certainly listen.

But when you try to empathize, you are probably just projecting. And that’s just about the worst thing you can do in a conflict with someone who has drastically different values from yours!

There is an even darker side to empathy, though.

The strongest kind of empathy happens when we see other people in conflicts. If you are already on one side of the conflict, then you will get defensive when you see someone from your side attacked. You will share their feelings.

And if you act on those feelings, congratulations. You have escalated the conflict.

Furthermore, unless you have really trained yourself to stay out of other people’s conflicts, even when you see a conflict that has nothing to do with you your instinct will be to take one side or the other. And then empathize.

I think by now almost everyone knows that abusers always play the victim. Do you see why? It’s how they form their little gang of toadies that they use to isolate the object of their abuse (who is sometimes an abuser as well, and doing the same exact thing.)

Now let’s get back to compromise.

In unhealthy families compromise is a constant reality. Why? The least healthy, most abusive members learn to make outrageous demands that everyone else then has to “compromise” on. These demands are usually made passive-aggressively, almost as if it is assumed that everyone else will go along. Any attempt to set real boundaries will be met with accusations of selfishness and rigidity. “Why do you care only about yourself? Why don’t you care about the group?”

The sicker the family, the more compromise is always demanded.

If you are the sort of person who is always compromising–particularly if you do that thing where you compromise in your head before actually having the conversation–you probably learned that in a very sick family structure.

Sick families also display the the most evil side of empathy, which isn’t even the way it causes conflicts to escalate.

In truly stuck families, everyone feels each other’s pain. Which means no one needs to change. The family remains stuck together, constantly empathizing, constantly suffering, and the harmful patterns just repeat endlessly. The repetition isn’t even conscious.

In such families, what is most necessary is for someone in the family to refuse to empathize. Someone literally needs to increase their tolerance for other people’s pain. To not care. And they are then going to have to deal with the temper tantrums and other forms of sabotage from family members who are used to being able to control the family by being sick, and expecting sympathy for the supposed “cause” of their harmful behavior.

Empathy can be great in a healthy family. It keeps the family together and stable. Empathy can be evil in a sick family. It keeps the family together and stable.

This is going to be hard for a lot of you to read, which is precisely why I wrote it. But many of you have learned to justify yourselves by upholding your empathetic responses. You seem to believe you are a good person because you can feel other people’s pain. I’m sorry to have to tell you this, but your empathy is merely making it easier for other people to avoid taking responsibility.

If you really want the ones you love to have any chance at all at healing, you probably need to stop empathizing. You definitely need to stop compromising. And you need to set rigid boundaries instead.

In other words, if you really want to help those closest to you, you need to be exactly what they would call “selfish.”

Best wishes, and take care of yourself.