Let’s play a quick game. Read the two quotes below and tell us which philosopher sounds more chill to you:
1. “To perceive is to suffer.” —Aristotle
2. “Before you criticize a man, walk a mile in his shoes. That way, when you do criticize him, you’ll be a mile away and have his shoes.” —Steve Martin
If you imagine that hyper-empathetic Aristotle has a more stressful inner life than shoe-stealing Steve Martin, you’re probably right. And that’s because you, like Aristotle here, have a functioning emotional intelligence.
Emotional intelligence is a person’s ability to accurately perceive, understand, and regulate emotions in oneself and others — sort of like a mood-leveling cocktail of empathy and self-awareness. Having a well-developed EI can be a huge asset in today’s increasingly team-oriented workplace, as well as day-to-day social interactions. A strong EI can help make your arguments with loved ones less painful, connect with strangers in a meaningful way, and even influence people with the charisma of a conman. But for all of this, a new study suggests, there are drawbacks. For starters, it can make you way more stressed.
To test the link between EI, stress, and testosterone, researchers from the Frankfurt School of Finance and Management had 166 male students take a standard EI test that involves identifying emotions on pictured faces and predicting emotional reactions to various scenarios. Following a 20-minute relaxation break, the stress test began. Students were given five minutes to prepare a five-minute speech about their personal strengths and weaknesses as a job candidate, then asked to deliver it live to one male and one female judge. Five minutes into their speeches, the students were cut off and asked to solve math problems aloud for another five minutes. For those of you who just felt a jolt of anxiety, there is a reason this test has become a scientific standard for measuring stress — even reading about it is painful.
After comparing saliva samples taken before and after the stress test, researchers found this pattern: the students who showed higher emotional intelligence became more stressed during their presentations, and remained stressed for a longer period of time after it was over. Being too empathetic, in other words, can be disabling. This could help explain why the sensation of “feeling embarrassed for someone” — say, everyone onstage during the final moments of the 2017 Academy Awards — can leave you unsettled for the rest of the night.
Naturally, further testing needs to be done to incorporate women and more diverse age groups into our understanding of EI and stress. Until then, simply being self-aware of when your empathy may be kicking into overdrive is an effective way to calm it down. So the next time you feel a secondhand cringe coming on, just breathe deeply, take a step back, and ask yourself, “What would Steve Martin do?”