There are two concepts that often get confused and they are empathy and compassion. They are not the same and they manifest themselves very differently in terms of behavioural outcomes and internal emotional states.
Empathy is the ability for someone to get into the mind state of another person, gaining a rich understanding of what it feels like to be the other people. If someone is sad, an empathetic person will relate strongly to their experience and feel sadness. Boundaries will be dissolved and it will become challenging to know where one person ends and the other person begins.
Compassion is the ability to care about another person while not becoming entangled in the others experience of an emotion. A compassionate person will be able to identify when someone is sad and they will want the other person to stop experiencing sadness, but they will not become sad themselves. There will be a strong boundary between the two people.
The problem with empathy is that it is generally not very helpful. Its value is used-up in a few seconds and then it very quickly becomes a problem. It may be useful to know what someone is experiencing, to get a thin slice of what this moment in time is like for them and to temporarily feel what they are feeling. This can help to establish the connection, to calibrate on what is occurring, and to get clear on what they are trying to get away from or maintain. After those things have been satisfied, it is best to wipe the slate as clean as possible and to focus on what needs to happen next. Doing anything other than flushing away their state to make room for your own will make you as unhelpful to them as they currently are to themselves. This is actually fairly difficult given that emotions are composed of neuro-chemicals that need to be cleaned-up completely before mental functioning returns to baseline.
The problem here is two fold. The first is that an emotional response tends to beget more of the same emotional response. It is very easy and more common than not to have a feedback loop that either sustains an emotional response or escalates the magnitude of the response. This is not helpful, and only compounds the problem when two highly charged people talk to each other. There is little chance that I’m going to be able to talk you off the ledge if I’m on the same ledge thinking about jumping too.
The second, and more importantly if you are interested in helping someone, it takes time for emotions to clear the brain and blood. During this period of time thinking will be impaired in predictable and profound ways. There is an inversely proportionate relationship between the size of an emotional response (the amount of neural chemicals released) and the activation of the prefrontal cortex. Triggering a full fight or flight response renders the prefrontal cortex off-line until the chemicals are cleaned-up. This makes sense given the evolutionary survival benefit of shutting down the part of the brain that inhibits massive immediate action and which generates thoughts and consideration of the future. In a true life or death situation, thinking about an action or the consequences to an action is more likely to lead to a premature death than running or fighting to neutralize the threat. But this kind of response is almost always way too much. Most of the time acting with some consideration for the future is the best course of action.
If you really want to be of service to another person, both of you will benefit when you have only a cursory appreciation of what they are experiencing and a desire to move them towards something they view as better – to know they are having a sucky experience yet to not share in that experience. If times are actually tough for them, they are probably experiencing the predictable cognitive impairment and cannot see their own way out of the situation. They will likely need your help in identifying the problem, determining some solutions, brainstorming the appropriate course of action and your guidance to shepherd them out. If they actually want a better life, the last thing they need is company and particular not company that feels the same way they do.
Compassion is what is needed in these situation and in most situations were help is wanted. To care enough to not becomes part of the same problem is an act of mercy and really the only moral course of action. By allowing your entire brain to work the problem you are proceeding down the only path that can lead to the elimination of their suffering. By choosing to empathize with them you are only multiplying the suffering and ensure that they get no help from you.