‘Empathic Concern’ Can Lead To Empty Promises—Here’s How To Avoid its Pitfalls

Photo: Getty Images/LaylaBird
When someone you care about is going through a difficult time, it can feel like second nature to promise you'll support them through it. You might say things like "I’m here for you" or "I’ll make sure we catch up every week." But as weeks pass and your life goes on, new priorities emerge, and sometimes those promises you previously made become hazy. Eventually you may realize you haven’t done much, if anything at all, to follow through on it, which can break the trust of the person to whom the promises were made.

Why do these empty promises creep into our speech so easily in the first place? According to Marisa G. Franco, PhD, psychologist and friendship expert, more often that not, they weren't empty from the outset. When a person makes a declaration, they usually intend to make good on it, which, she says, has to do with natural inclinations toward empathy from mirror neurons. “We have these neurons in our brains that reflect the emotions of someone else so that we feel them ourselves,” says Dr. Franco.

Experts In This Article

And when someone is in distress, that sense of general empathy can shift into a more compassionate and action-oriented empathic concern. “Empathy is feeling what they’re feeling, and empathic concern is feeling this intense desire to relieve their suffering,” says Lara Kammrath, PhD, an associate professor of psychology at Wake Forest University.

Sometimes, though, these promises are made in more of an autopilot way, because they feel safe to say and better than saying nothing or—worse—something wrong and directly damaging.“Some of us might have a script for what we think a good friend does and says, like ‘I’ll be here for you, I’ll check in on you’,” says Dr. Franco, noting that it's common to be at loss for words regarding somebody else's profoundly difficult experience.

And even in this case, when the promise is less so a product of empathic concern and more about placating, the intention is still often to make good on it. Saying these nice-sounding things can also “affirm the perception we want to have as someone who will show up and is supportive of others,” says Dr. Franco. “And in the moment, it makes us feel fulfilled and have a more positive self-image.” The problem, then, comes in the follow-through.

How does empathic concern lead to empty promises?

Often, the empathic concern felt for someone else's distress ends up dissolving over time. “When we have more of a psychological distance from them, we don't feel that same deep sense of emotion that might push us to empathize because we’re not picking up on their emotions as acutely,” says Dr. Franco. And if we don't pick up on those emotions as acutely, the level empathic concern mobilizing us to act in support is often less strong.

“When we have more psychological distance, we don't feel that deep sense of emotion that might push us to empathize.” —Marisa G. Franco, PhD, psychologist

“Your desire to make things better can carry you for a little while," Dr. Kammrath says. "But once that rush of feeling fades, it's going to come down to how self-disciplined you are. Are you the person who gets up and does something, whether or not you feel like doing it?”

What can help us be more self-disciplined with following through is a realistic assessment of our capacity before making any sort of promise. (People tend to under-appreciate their schedule and the reality of how they would execute on a promise among their other commitments—especially if the promise involves regular action.) The time lag between the promise-making and promise-execution also makes a difference. For example, if you promise someone that you’ll hang out with them this afternoon rather than in two weeks, there's a stronger likelihood you'll carry out the plan.

How to stop over-promising and under-delivering

The first step is becoming aware that the promises we make aren't followed-through on, making them empty. After that, Dr. Franco suggests that before making any promise, pause and think about what you're saying to avoid any autopilot placations. “Ask yourself if the person is someone with whom you want to have the deep intimacy that might come with showing up,” she says. This can help to determine the level of willingness to be an active and present support system.

And if that level is low or not existent, you can avoid making any promises at all while still being helpful to the person in the moment. “Before you go to meet someone, you could rehearse phrases that would not be a promise of anything and yet would express how much empathic concern you feel for the person,” says Dr. Kammrath. "I’m so sorry," and “I love you so much, and it hurts my heart that this is happening to you" are two examples of this.

You could also ask helpful questions that allow the person to vent without overextending yourself. Dr. Franco suggests asking "How long have you been feeling this way?" or "What's the hardest part about all this?" and reflecting their feelings back to them by saying "that sounds so painful or difficult." From there, you can further validate their feelings by saying "It's totally okay to feel that way."

“One of the reasons people say they will ‘be there’ for someone is they may think it is the most powerful thing they can say to make the other person feel better," says Dr. Kammrath. But ultimately, it's more helpful to simply be there and provide the support in the moment, no promises made.

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