One of the misunderstandings of empathy is that “empathy means weakness.” Not so. Why not?
Empathy means being firm but flexible about boundaries. The most empathic people that I know are also the strongest and most assertive regarding respect for boundaries. Being empathic does not mean being a push over. You wouldn’t want to mess with them. Where such people show up, empathy lives—shame and bullying have no place. (For a working definition of empathy, see the note at the bottom of this post.)
Empathy thus solves the dilemma of how to deal with a bully without becoming a bully oneself. Bullies are notoriously causal about violating the boundaries of other people, because it is easier to cause pain than to feel pain. Bullies are taking their pain and working it out on other people. Bullies do not acknowledge their own vulnerabilities, and they work out their issues – I almost said “shxt” –on other people. Bullies are offloading their distress on other people. But what to do about it from an empathic perspective?
I am going to answer that question directly, but first take a short step back: Once the stones start flying back-and-forth, there is nothing to do but defend oneself or try to escape if outnumbered – retreat. If it is a school year brawl, hit ‘em back in self-defense if one is able. If the corporate boss is a bully, document and escalate – and update your resume just in case. If the bully is a politician, speak truth to power like Malcolm-X did: “You did not land on Plymouth Rock; Plymouth Rock landed on you” – use humor to bring down arrogance and privilege.
Once the stones start flying, the conversation is no longer about empathy or vulnerability. It is about who has the biggest cudgel or stone. Empathy did not work – empathy is in breakdown along with common courtesy and decency – call for backup! However, if things are still at the stage of name calling, remember what to my secular ears the ultimate empath of the spirit, Jesus of Nazareth, said and did. He was outnumbered with the woman “taken in adultery” confronting an angry mob of scribes, elders, and Pharisees, armed with large stones: “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone” (John 7:53 – 8:11). Nothing happened. No one dared be the first to assert his perfection. While the originality of this passage may be debated – did John really write it and who the heck is John, anyway – the pasage’s psychological power is beyond question.
In the face of loss of power, authority escalates to violence. Jesus dared to make himself vulnerable by aligning with the woman who had violated the community’s standards, which were so rigid that a case of infidelity threatened to below up the entire fabric of civilization. Otherwise, why would the authorities need to stone her to death? (And it really was all men who were about to do the stoning – so you can see there were many problems here!)
Always the astute practitioner of empathy, Jesus got inside their heads. He knew the authorities wanted to look good and claiming to be better than everyone else would make them look bad. Instead of shaming the woman Jesus turned the tables and put the authorities to shame. To get power over shame one has to allow oneself to be exposed and vulnerable to it. Be proud!
Thus, Brené Brown makes a parallel observation about vulnerability – she does research on vulnerability and shame – and asserts that it is a myth that “vulnerability is weakness.” Thus her project is to expand our appreciation of the power of vulnerability.
As Brené Brown uses the distinction “vulnerability,” she means living with uncertainty, living with risk, and living with emotional exposure. She understands vulnerability to mean letting go of “looking good” or fear of being ashamed. She means it to go in harm’s way emotionally or even physically and spiritually by having difficult conversations and taking actions about the things that make a difference – relationships, finances, careers, values, fairness, and so on. The inner game of vulnerability is different than the behavioral vulnerability that consists in leaving the password to your bank account on a yellow sticky pasted to your computer.
Brené Brown’s coaching is to expand vulnerability in the sense that I have my vulnerabilities; not my vulnerabilities have me. Her lesson “no courage without vulnerability” means that the courageous person goes forth into risk and danger in spite of being afraid. The person who imagines he is without fear is precisely the one who behaves in a foolhardy way, for example, Colonel Custer at the Little Bighorn, about to be wiped out, saying “We’ve got them now!” completely unaware of the risks he was taking. He did not have his vulnerability; his vulnerability had him – and did him in along with his regiment.
I hasten to add that empathy and vulnerability are different phenomena, not to be confused with one another. They are not either/or – the world needs more of each one – expanded empathy as well as the power conferred by expanded vulnerability.
You cannot do empathy alone. I get my empathy from the other individual. The other individual expands my empathy by giving me his; and I acknowledge the other individual’s humanity by giving him my empathy. The baby brings forth the parent’s empathy and is socialized by it – brought into the human community. The student brings forth the teacher’s empathy and is educated through it – brought into the educated community. The customer arouses the businessperson’s empathy and is served by it – brought into the community of the market. The list goes on.
Likewise, you cannot do vulnerability alone. The more armored up and defensive a person becomes, the less vulnerably, the less uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure the person incurs. However, without uncertainty, risk, or exposure, such essential results as innovation, productivity, courage, relatedness, satisfaction, and, yes, empathy, get lost.
Even though empathy and vulnerability are distinct phenomena, when they occasionally breakdown and fail, the component fragments are remarkably similar. Empathic receptivity breaks down as emotional contagion; likewise, in vulnerability a person is overwhelmed by the emotions of the moment.
Empathic understanding breaks down as conformity. Instead of relating to the other person as an authentic possibility, one conforms to the crowd and what “one does.” Likewise with vulnerability, risk is replaced with playing it safe, not rocking the boat, and remaining as invisible as possible.
Empathic interpretation breaks down as projection. Instead of taking a walk in the other person’s shoes to appreciate where they pinch the other person, one projects one’s own reactions and responses onto the other. Likewise with vulnerability, uncertainty is replaced with being right, making the other person wrong, and shutting down inquiry and innovation in the interest of not rocking the boat.
Empathic responsiveness breaks down in getting lost in translation. Instead of acknowledging the other person’s struggle as disclosing aspects of one’s shared humanity, one tries to “cap the rap,” get the last word in, and win the argument. Likewise with vulnerability, one talks about the other person instead of talking to them. Free speech is alive and well; but what has gone missing is listening. People are [mostly] speaking freely – no one is listening. It doesn’t work.
In each of the breakdowns of empathy, I do not have empathy – rather my break down in empathy has me. Instead of asking, what is wrong? Rather ask, what is missing? And, in this case, what is missing, the presence of which would make a difference, is a radical acceptance that empathy requires emotional exposure to the uncertainty and risk taking of related. That is precisely vulnerability.
When vulnerability is added to empathy the result is community. Since we are on a roll with our secular but empathic interpretation of spiritual readings, in the defining parable of community, empathy is what enables the Good Samaritan (Luke 10: 25–37) to be vulnerable to a vicarious experience of what the survivor of the assault and robbery is experiencing.
In contrast, the priest and Levi experience empathic distress – are armored up and defensive in the face of vulnerability – and have to cross the road. The Samaritan’s empathy tells him what the survivor is experiencing; and it is the Samaritan’s vulnerability and ethics that tell him what to do about it. The two are distinct. Yet empathy expands the boundary of who is one’s neighbor to be more-and-more inclusive, extending especially to those whose humanity has been put at risk by the vicissitudes of vulnerability. Be inclusive.
Note: the short definition of empathy is that it is a multi-phase way of relating to people individually and in community with receptivity to the other’s affects, understanding of the other as an authentic possibility, an appreciation of the other’s perspective, and responsiveness in acknowledgement of the other’s humanity in the other’s communication.
Brené Brown. (2012). Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead. New York: Avery, a Division of Random House Penguin.
Lou Agosta. (2010). Empathy in the Context of Philosophy. London: PalgraveMacmillan.
_________. (2014). A Rumor of Empathy: Rewriting Empathy in the Context of Philosophy. New York: Palgrave Pivot.
________. (2015). A Rumor of Empathy: Resistance, Narrative, and Recovery in Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy. London: Routledge.
_________. (2018). Top Seven Lessons on Empathy For Leadership (webcast): Chicago: 2018: https://youtu.be/GrgDWDt4uqg
________. (2018). Empathy Lessons. Chicago: Two Pears Press.
_______. (2018). A Critical Review of a Philosophy of Empathy. Chicago: Two Pears Press.
Lou Agosta and Alex Zonis (Illustrator). (2020). Empathy: A Lazy Person’s Guide. Chicago: Two Pears Press.
For further details and additional tips and techniques see Lou’s light-hearted look at the topic, Empathy: A Lazy Person’s Guide or one of his peer-reviewed publications see: Lou Agosta’s publications: click here (https://tinyurl.com/y8mof57f)
© Lou Agosta, PhD and The Chicago Empathy Project
Empathy flourishes in a space of acceptance and tolerance. But acceptance and tolerance have their dark side, too. People can be intolerant and unaccepting. Be accepting of what? Be accepting of intolerance? Be tolerant of intolerance? Yes, be tolerant, but set limits. But how to do that given that we may still have free speech in the USA, but many people have just stopped listening.
“The Trouble With Empathy” is an article by Molly Worthen published in The New York Times on September 04, 2020. The author gets many things just right in an impressive engagement with the complexities of empathy, but in other areas, including the citations of certain academics, I have an alternative point of view. Hence, the trouble with the trouble with empathy is not a typo. The reply is summarized in the diagram (note that it is labeled “Figure 2,” but it is the only diagram – page down, please). For those interested in more detail, read on.
Babies are not born knowing the names of the color spectrum. Children are taught these names and how to use them in (pre)Kindergarten; likewise, with the names of the emotions such as sadness, fear, anger, and high spirits. However, there is a lot more to empathy than naming one’s feelings and getting in touch with our mammalian ability to resonate with one another in empathic receptivity and understanding.
As an adult, the fact that you failed to be empathic does not mean that your commitment to empathy is any less strong; just that you did not succeed this time; and you need to keep trying. Stay the course. It takes practice. The practice is precisely the empathy training.
Often understanding emerges out of misunderstanding. My description of the other person’s experience as they lived it is clumsy and creates a misunderstanding. But when the misunderstanding is clarified and cleaned up, then empathy occurs. Thus, break throughs in empathy emerge out of breakdowns. So whenever a breakdown in empathy shows up, do not be discouraged, but rather be glad, for a break through is near.
Evidence from the past rarely demonstrates what innovations are possible in the future. Just because people are not born with wings does not mean people cannot fly. If the Wright Brothers had accepted the evidence, we would all still be taking the train. I hasten to add there is nothing wrong with taking the train. People can be intolerant, and I too am people. Work on oneself is constantly needed.
I open my mouth to be empathic and respond empathically—but instead of an empathic response, out jumps a frog: “I feel your pain.” What a fake! If I really felt your pain, then I would say “Ouch!” not “I feel your pain.” I find that I do frequently say “Ouch!” Or just shake my head and provide acknowledgement and recognition: “You’ve really been dealing with some tough stuff.” “Sounds like use could use some empathy.”
The point is not to devalue the attempted empathic response, clumsy though it may be. The point is to acknowledge that the lazy person expands his empathy in a practice filled with examples of not getting it quite right. If empathy were a sport, it would be filled with strikeouts, fumbles, off sides, failures, and incomplete plays. There would even perhaps be examples of “unsportsman-like conduct.”
Each of the four phases of empathy has characteristic breakdowns. This is not new news. The news is that if engaged with a rigorous and critical empathy, these breakdowns readily become breakthroughs in empathy.
Breakthroughs in empathy arise from working through the breakdowns of empathy. The Big Four breakdowns of empathy are noted: emotional contagion, conformity, projection, and getting lost in translation. These are not the only breakdowns of empathy, which are many and diverse, but these are the most frequent ones.
In the example of emotional contagion, one anxious person is telling the other person about all the reasons in the world that he is feeling out of sorts. Pretty soon, the person who is listening is starting to feel anxious too. The person’s receptivity—openness and availability—to the other individual’s emotions is working overtime and his empathic receptivity misfires, becoming: Emotional contagion. Emotional infection strikes again!
Often it is not so obvious. Often people are caught up in the emotion of the moment. The emotion itself is so powerful that it just sweeps over everyone present like a tidal wave—an emotional tsunami. The person is flooded—emotionally.
If the listener realizes that listening to anxiety-inspiring stories causes his own anxiety to spike, then that is already going beyond emotional contagion and the start of an empathic processing of the emotion.
If one stops in the analysis of empathy with the mere communication of feelings, then empathy collapses into emotional contagion. Empathic receptivity breaks down into emotional contagion, suggestibility, being over-stimulated by the inbound flood of the other person’s strong feelings.
Emotional contagion—basically the communication of emotions, feelings, affects, and experiences—can be redescribed as input to further down stream empathic processing. Then emotional contagion (communicability of affect) gets “normalized” and can very well make a contribution to empathic understanding.
Overcoming the breakdown of empathy into emotional contagion results in the breakthrough to vicarious experience. A vicarious experience is what a person has in going to the theatre, the movies, or a single-person player video game. I experience the fears and hopes of the character in the film, but I do so vicariously. Theatre, film, and the novel were “virtual reality” (VR) long before computers, special VR goggles, and social networking were invented.
Vicarious experience is not empathy. It is input to the process of empathy. Vicarious experience is the grain of truth in the fake-sounding empathy meme, “I feel your pain.” I feel your pain—vicariously. I experience an after-image of your pain—like the visual after-image of the American flag that results from starring at a vivid depiction of the off-color image of the stars and stripes. I repeat: we gat an after-image of another person’s feelings and emotions.
I am amazed that no one has as yet explicitly pointed out that we get after-images of other people’s feelings when we are exposed to those feelings for a sustained duration. A vicarious experience of emotion differs from emotional contagion in that one explicitly recognizes and knows that the other person is the source of the emotion.
You feel anxious or sad or high spirits, because you are with another person who is having such an experience. You “pick it up” from him. You can then process the vicarious experience, unpacking it for what is so and what is possible in the relationship. This returns empathy to the positive path of empathic understanding, enabling a breakthrough in “getting” what the other person is experiencing. Then you can contribute to the other person regulating and mastering the experience by being there for him and responding with soothing words and acknowledgement of the situation.
The next breakdown of empathy is settling for conformity instead of striving for possibility. We might also say: settling for agreement instead of striving for possibility.
People live and flourish in possibilities. Empathic understanding breaks down as “no possibility,” “stuckness,” and the suffering of “no exit” (the definition of Hell in a famous play of the same name by Jean Paul Sartre). You follow the crowd in responding to the other person; you do what “one does”; you validate feelings and attitudes according to what “they say”; you conform and express agreement; and, with apologies to Henry David Thoreau, you live the life of quiet desperation of the “modern mass of men.”
When someone is stuck, experiencing shame, guilt, rage, upset, emotional disequilibrium, and so on, the person is fooling himself—has a blind spot—about what is possible. This does not mean that it is easy to be in the person’s situation or for the person to see what is missing. Far from it. We live in possibilities that we allow to define our constraints and limitations—for example, see the example of the friend who was married and divorced three times. This expresses a strong commitment to marriage, though empathy and husbanding skills are seemingly limited.
If you acknowledge that the things that get in the way of your relatedness are the very rules you make up about what is possible in your relationships, then you get the freedom to relate to the rules and possibilities precisely as possibilities, not absolute “shoulds.” You stop “shoulding” on yourself. This brings us to the next break down—the break down in empathic interpretation.
Taking a walk in the other person’s shoes—the folk definition of empathy—breaks down if you take that walk using an inaccurate shoe size. You then know where your shoe pinches, not hers. This is also called “projection.” The recommendation?
Take back the projections of your own inner conflicts onto other people. Take back your projections. Own them. You get your power back along with your projections. Stop making up meaning about what is going on with the other person; or, since you probably cannot stop making up meaning, at least distinguish the meaning—split it off, quarantine it, take distance from it, so that its influence is limited.
Having worked through your vicarious experiences, worked through possibilities for overcoming conformity and stuckness, and taken back your projections, you are ready to engage in communicating to the other person your sense of the other individual’s experience. You are going to try to say to the other what you got from what they told you, describing back to the other your sense of their experience. And what happens? Sometimes it works; sometimes you “get it” and the other “gets” that you “get it”; but other times the description gets “lost in translation.”
This breakdown of empathic responsiveness occurs within language. You fail to express yourself satisfactorily. I believed that I empathized perfectly with the other person’s struggle, but my description of her experience failed significantly to communicate to the other person what I got from listening to her.
My empathy remains a tree in the forest that falls without anyone being there. My empathy remains silent, inarticulate, and uncommunicative. I get credit for a nice empathic try; but the relatedness between the persons is not an empathic one. If the other person is willing, then go back to the start and try again. Iterate. Learn from one’s mistakes and incomplete gestures.
The fact that you failed does not mean that your commitment to empathy is any less strong; just that you did not succeed this time; and you need to keep trying. Stay the course. It takes practice. The practice is precisely the empathy training.
Often understanding emerges out of misunderstanding. My description of the other person’s experience as they lived it is clumsy and creates a misunderstanding. But when the misunderstanding is clarified and cleaned up, then empathy occurs. As that notorious bad boy of a certain 18th century enlightenment, Voltaire, is supposed to have said: Let not perfection be the enemy of the good. Thus, break throughs in empathy emerge out of breakdowns. So whenever a breakdown in empathy shows up, do not be discouraged, but rather be glad, for a break through is near.
Knowing Professor Worthen’s [the author of the NYT article that provoked this reply] interest in religious studies, I conclude with a reflection on empathy and the Good Samaritan. The Parable of the Good Samaritan speaks volumes (Luke 10: 25–37). The first two people, who passed by the survivor by crossing the road, experienced empathic distress. They were prevented from helping out by a breakdown of their empathic receptivity. They were overwhelmed by the suffering and crossed the road. In contrast, the Good Samaritan had a vicarious experience of the suffering. His empathic receptivity gave him access to the survivor’s pain. His empathy told him what the other person was experiencing and his compassion told him what to do about it.
To get Lou’s light-hearted look at the topic, Empathy: A Lazy Person’s Guide or one of his peer-reviewed publications see: Lou Agosta’s publications: https://tinyurl.com/y8mof57f
(c) Lou Agosta, PhD and the Chicago Empathy Project