Resistance to Empathy and How to Overcome it (Part 2): Individual Provider and Receiver (of Empathy)
Empathy is trending. As we engage with provider empathy, the pendulum has swung far enough for a backlash against empathy to be emerging.
Empathy with negative emotions and suffering is difficult. From a purely selfish perspective, empathic data gathering about the negative experiences endured and survived by other persons can be, well, negative. Negative experiences such as loss, hostility, intense rage, sexual danger, sadness, sleep deprivation, fear, and so on, are not welcome by anyone even as a less intense vicarious experiences. One fears getting the full-blown experience, not merely vicariously experiencing a sample or trace. The would-be empathizer is at risk of being overwhelmed, inundated, or flooded by emotional upset. The person’s empathy is on the slippery slope of empathic distress; and the empathy is at risk of breakdown.
The language is telling. If one is hit by a tidal wave, then one is going to be “under water.” Kick your feet, make swimming motions with the arms, and rise to the surface to try to catch your breath. While an empathic response is easier said than done, expressing the suffering of the survivor in a simple and factually accurate statement can open the way to containing the suffering and getting unstuck. Dial down empathic receptivity and dial up empathic interpretation and understanding.
People committed to providing empathy to other people resist their own commitment to empathy for several reasons. As soon as a person makes a commitment—in this case, a commitment to practice empathy—then all the reasons why the commitment is a bad idea, unworkable, unreasonable, or just plain absurd, show up. There is no time. It is too expensive. No one is interested. What seemed like a good idea yesterday, now seems a lot more challenging and like a lot more work. Yet empathy is never needed more than when it seems there is no possibility of it.
The would-be empathizer is vulnerable to a vicarious experience of the other person’s suffering. Indeed if one’s empathic data filter is not granular enough, one is at risk of being inundated by emotional contagion. This does not mean that the provider of empathy has to be a masochist, stuck on suffering. However, it does mean being vulnerable to a sample of the suffering. It does mean opening oneself up to a sample of the other person’s upsetting experience. It does mean being receptive to that which the other finds so upsetting, but doing so in a regulated and limited way. Hence, the need for training.
The training consists in interrupting and accepting one’s own feelings and letting them be. Practice is required in order to increase one’s tolerance and learn to be with uncomfortable feelings.
One key to forming a humane relationship with anyone who is upset: Vicariously getting a taste of the upset, experiencing vicariously the other’s fear or anger. Acknowledge the experience as valid. Accept the experience, not as good or fair, but as what one has indeed experienced.
One celebrity academic claims that in empathy the better part of emotion is reducible to emotional contagion. What the world needs to practice is not empathy, but rational compassion. As if one had to choose between the two! The world needs expanded empathy and more compassion of all kinds.[i]
A vicarious experience is essential data as to what the other person is experiencing; but if one is distressed to the point of upset by the other’s upset, then one is not going to be able to make a difference. Paradoxically one is not going to be able to experience one’s experience due to being distracted by one’s own upset. One’s empathy has misfired, gone off the rails, failed.
Empathy is in breakdown. One has to regroup. Take a time out. Acknowledge that one is human. One does not always get it right, but that does not mean that one is less committed to empathy or helping the other. It is worth repeating that the empathizer may expect to suffer, but not too much—just a little bit.
The good news is that empathy, when properly implemented, serves as an antidote to burnout or “compassion fatigue.” Note the language here. Unregulated empathy supposedly results in “compassion fatigue.” However, this work has repeatedly distinguished empathy from compassion.
Could it be that when one tries to be empathic and experiences compassion fatigue, then one is actually being compassionate instead of empathic? Consider the possibility. The language is a clue. Strictly speaking, one’s empathy is in breakdown. Instead of being empathic, one is being compassionate, and, in this case, the result is compassion fatigue without the quotation marks. It is no accident that the word “compassion” occurs in “compassion fatigue,” which is a nuance rarely noted by the advocates of “rational compassion.”
No one is saying, do not be compassionate. Compassion has its time and place—as does empathy. We may usefully work to expand both; but we are saying do not confuse the two. Empathy is a method of data gathering about the experiences of the other person; compassion tells one what to do about it, based on one’s ethics and values.
Most providers of empathy find that with a modest amount of training, they can adjust their empathic receptivity up or down to maintain their own emotional equilibrium. In the face of a series of sequential samples of suffering, the empathic person is able to maintain his emotional equilibrium thanks to a properly adjusted empathic receptivity. No one is saying that the other’s suffering or pain should be minimized in any way or invalidated. One is saying that, with practice, regulating empathy becomes a best practice.
However, the good news is sometimes also the less good news.
The other person’s suffering reminds one of one’s own suffering.
The other person’s anger reminds one of one’s own anger.
The other’s failures evoke one’s own setbacks.
The other’s self-defeating behavior is plainly evident to any third party, but one’s own self-defeating behavior seems to continue with regularity in tripping up oneself.
Rarely does a person say, “I want to be empathic in order to confront my own personal demons.” Rarely does one say it, but that is what is needed. That is the work of expanding one’s empathy. As in the fairy tale, one must spend three nights in the haunted castle, fighting the ghosts of one’s past and confronting the illusive specter of one’s blind spots.
Anxiety, depression, fragmentation, and the dehumanization dwelling in the dark side of human nature loom large before discovering the buried treasure of one’s own emotional resources in the face of upsets.
The thinking and practices that created empathy breakdowns are insufficient to overcome them. The thinking and practices that created resistances to empathy are insufficient to transform them. To get one’s power back in the face of resistance to empathy, something extra is required.
Expanding one’s empathy in the face of one’s own resistance to empathy requires something extra. Expanding empathy requires expanding authenticity, so the person who would practice empathy has to confront and clean up his own emotional contagion, conformity, projection, egocentrism, devaluing judgments and opinions, and the tendency of communications to get lost in translation. This clean up requires acting to repair disruptions in relatedness and repairing misunderstandings and miscommunications with other people by acknowledging one’s own contribution to the breakdown. It requires picking up the phone or requesting a meeting. It requires showing up, engaging, and acknowledging how one acted to cause the upset or breakdown.
Instead of emotional contagion, conformity, projection, and mistranslation, one enters the empathic cycle, engaging with openness towards the other person in receptivity, understanding of possibilities, taking ownership of one’s meaning making so that the other person is left free to be self-expressed, and responding in such a way that the other person is left whole and complete.
This means accepting the consequences of one’s deeds and mis-deeds. That is the first step—and every step—in recovering one’s power in relation to empathy. One might not get what one wants. However, what one is going to get is unstuck—and the freedom to be empathic in relationships going forward.
Everyone wants to get empathy, don’t they? Speaking of a recipient’s resistance to empathy sounds like resisting rainbows and colored balloons. What’s not to like? Empathy is what everyone really wants, isn’t it? Well, not always. Resistance to empathy—that it exists—is the basic empathy lesson of this chapter.
Emotional closeness leaves a person vulnerable to disappointment. The would-be recipient of empathy is ambivalent and vulnerable about being intimate with the other person, inhibiting the recipient’s empathic relatedness. The result is resistance to empathy.
People want approval from other people. People want approval for their opinions and behavior. People want agreement. Life is definitely easier, at least in the short run, if one is surrounded by people who agree with one rather than disagree.
People especially want agreement when they have something to be disagreeable about. They want agreement when they have a complaint. However, empathy does not lead off with approval and agreement.
Empathy leads off by being quiet and listening. In the face of chronic complaints and self-defeating behavior, being empathic often takes an open and inquiring stance that the other person may usefully take a look at any responsibility or potential blind spots he may be holding onto as the source of the complaint. It seems like “mission impossible,” since the blind spot is precisely that which, by definition, one does not know and that to which one can get access only through sustained self-inquiry. Doing the hard work of undertaking an inquiry into one’s own issues is, well, hard work. That results in resistance to empathy.
Resistant or not, people want to be understood. People want to be gotten for who they authentically are. People want other people to know how they have struggled to succeed and overcome adversity.
Yet, in hoping to be understood for who they really are, people are asking, not so much for agreement as for empathy.
People assert that they want to be understood; yet they do not want to be understood too well.
People do not want to take too close a look at how they have contributed to their own struggle and effort. People do not want to face directly how they have contributed in self-defeating ways to their own frustration and stuckness about which they so loudly complain.
People want the recognition of their humanity that comes with empathy; but not the unmasking of their own blind spots, which requires getting out of their comfort zone.
Let’s face it. People can be difficult. People are disagreeable. People are contrary. People are ornery. People are rude and discourteous. People push and shove. People often forget to honor their agreements. People lie. People are overly aggressive. People are overly sexed. People are under-sexed. People smell bad. Is it any wonder that people do not want to get close to other people? Is it any surprise that people develop resistance to being empathic towards other people?
This is a case of you can’t live with them and you can’t live without them. People, that is. Yet there is no such thing as a person in isolation. A person by himself is not a survivable entity. That is true of newborn babies. That is true of children of tender age, who require years of guidance and education. Likewise, that is true of adults, though in more nuanced ways.
The “I” is a part of the “we,” and the “we” a part of the “I”
Early prehistoric humans needed a companion to tend the campfire and stand guard against predators (or hostile neighbors) while the other(s) rested. The basic male and female pair was an inseparable requirement for procreative success.
Propagating the species to build a community against the ravages of infant mortality was a priority requiring skills to cooperate with one another socially. For most of recorded history (and before) children were the equivalent of a pension plan for aging parents; and in many parts of the world today that continues to be the case.
Domination and control of individuals in community based on physical strength and violence coexisted alongside (and contended against) forms of cooperation, leadership, and community-building based on the skillful use of language and symbols to exercise power based on motivation, persuasion, inspiration, inclusion, and enlightened self-interest.
The point is not to tell a “just so” story about the origins of civilization, but rather to acknowledge that, not only is the individual a part of the community, the community is also a part of the individual. This bears repeating. The “I” does not only belong to the “we”; but the “we” is a part of the “I.” We carry within ourselves a readiness for community, a readiness for relatedness, a sense of inclusion in community; and if there is no one else to talk to, we talk to ourselves.
The empathy lesson? Empathy is the foundation of relatedness, and resistance to empathy is resistance to relatedness. People are born into “relatedness.” Empathy is about participation with others. Empathy is about relatedness with other people and who these others authentically are in their strengths and weaknesses, in their possibilities and limitations. Even when a person is a hermit, all alone, he is alone in such a way that his aloneness depends on the basic condition of his being a creature designed for relatedness. Being unrelated is a privative form of relatedness; and being alone is a deficient form of relatedness. Paradoxically, nonrelatedness becomes a way of relating for some.
Given that resistance to empathy on the part of the would-be recipient of empathy is pervasive, what is the recommendation? Ask yourself: What is coming between myself and the other person who is offering empathy? Perhaps fear of being misunderstood is a factor. Fear of being let down is another factor. Fear of being vulnerable gets in the way. Fear of disappointment is a consideration.
What do all these factors have in common? Fear. Fear is front and center. However, there is something else further back behind the fear. Less obvious but highly significant. What would a person have to give up in order to be receptive to the gracious and generous listening being offered? Behind the fear is attachment—attachment to suffering.
Suffering is sticky
For people who are survivors, whether of the college of hard knocks or significant trauma, allowing themselves to experience another’s empathy takes something extra. Many people who fall short of a clinical label of “post traumatic stress disorder” (PTSD) have an area in their lives in which they are engaged with their suffering in an intimate way. You know the saying: “Keep your friends close, but your enemies even closer”? So it is also with suffering. In order to survive suffering, many people have decided to keep it close to them. They are attached to it. Overly attached? One thing is for sure. Suffering is sticky.[ii] Letting go of the suffering through the soothing experience of empathy seems like a risky proposition to people who feel fragile and vulnerable.
Consider PTSD. (We define our terms.) In an attempt to master the consequences of the life threatening experience of trauma, the organism (the human mind/body) keeps the fear, anxiety, and pain split off from being experienced as one’s own. Yes, one was present when the assault happened, the violence was perpetrated, or the train wreck occurred.
Yet in another sense, one was not present. One was not there, at least not as a conscious being. In being overwhelmed in the moment, one immediately took oneself out of the experience as an immediate reaction and survival mechanism. The traumatic experience remains unintegrated with one’s other life experiences, spinning in a tight circle of repetition.
The circle of repetition is split off from the person’s awareness and everyday life, remaining isolated—“sequestered” is the technical term for it.[iii] Suffering lives. The pain is real. Suffering itself becomes a kind of “comfort zone,” but only in the limited sense that it is isolated and separated from the awareness of the person trying to live his life.
This in no way diminishes the struggle or suffering of the survivor. Yet letting go of the suffering through the soothing balm of empathy shows up like a risky encounter with the unknown. For most people, the unknown itself is fear inspiring. The unknown is as fear inspiring as the suffering itself.
One keeps coming back to the suffering in the hope that it might be magically shifted. One keeps coming back to it like an exposed nerve in a toothache. Yes, it still hurts—ouch! The suffering starts to dominate one’s whole life, and one builds one’s life around the suffering, trying to manage and contain the uncontainable. One says, “I know my own dear little suffering up close, and it is a comfort to me in its own way—it gives me all these secondary gains—even though the impact and cost is staggering in the long term—yet I cannot let it go.”
We cycle back to empathy and its many dimensions in the context of suffering as an uncomfortable comfort zone.
How to be empathically responsive to the struggling individual and his “dear little suffering” requires an empathic listening of remarkable finesse and timeliness.
Empathy can help people get out of their comfort zone, in this case a place of suffering, in a safe and liberating way. When empathy gets an opening, empathy shrinks the trauma the way interferon is supposed to shrink tumors. Empathy sooths the accompanying suffering and reduces the stress.
The survivor is able to let go of the attachment to suffering, and engage with new possibilities. No guarantee exists that the outcome of the new possibilities will be favorable; many risks await; but the individual is no longer stuck.
In summary, we have engaged with resistance to empathy from three perspectives. We have explored overcoming resistance to empathy in the organization, in the individual providing empathy, and in the individual receiving empathy. In each case the empathy training consists in driving out obstacles to empathy, reducing or eliminating the resistance, so empathy can spontaneously grow and develop.
The organization drives out empathy by enforcing conformity to an extensive and contradictory set of rules, whose complexity is such that at any give time, the individual is technically (though unwittingly) in violation of one of them.
Speaking truth to power can be hazardous to one’s career; and humor is closely related to empathy; so humor becomes a powerful way of regulating empathy, expanding and contracting empathy in such challenging organizational contexts. Humor is a powerful tool against the arrogance of authoritarian domination. Both empathy and humor require crossing the boundary between self and other with integrity and respect, but humor offers additional opportunities for questioning the status quo, speaking truth to power, and creating the stress, suddenly relaxed by laughter, caused by expressing what’s so.
Empathy has a key role to play in organizations in reducing conflict, overcoming “stuckness,” eliminating self-defeating behavior, building teams, fostering innovation, developing leadership, and enhancing productivity. The empathy lesson is to use humor (and empathy) to undercut resistance to empathy in the organization. The lesson is that empathy is a source of creating possibilities, overcoming conformity through innovation, and leading from a future of possibilities.
Resistance to empathy on the part of those who provide empathy shows up as “compassion fatigue” and burnout. The word is a clue: compassion, not empathy, causes “compassion fatigue.” So much compassion, so little empathy. I hasten to repeat that the world needs both more compassion and more empathy. Peer group dynamics, collegial support, and self-care are required to recharge the emotional resources of those routinely providing empathy to others.
Regular self-care, including exercise, nutrition, quality time with family/friends, is on the critical path to survival and flourishing, managing the risk of experiencing empathic distress.
This makes the case for self-care and self-monitoring on the part of professionals of all kinds and first responders in health care, education, sales, leadership, public safety, customer service, and so on, whose empathy is a significant part of their role. Professionals take breaks and are on top of their empathy game; amateurs try to be empathic all the time (whatever that would mean), experience empathic distress, make it mean they lack empathy, and quit. Those who do not take care of themselves, then blaming empathy when they get burned out, are committing a kind of malpractice of empathic engagement (in the literal, not pejorative sense of the word). Like a helicopter, empathy is powerful and complex, so it requires regularly scheduled maintenance lest something go wrong at an inconvenient time.
For those individuals who want empathy or think that they want empathy, but then change their minds, resistance to empathy confronts readiness for empathy. Some people simply would rather not be understood. For them, being understood has resulted in bad outcomes. They have been manipulated, used, even abused.
In such cases, the would-be empathizer has to “dial down” empathic receptivity, in which the communication of affect looms large, and “tune up” empathic interpretation, in which one cognitively processes what it might be like to take the other’s point of view. Once a person feels safe, the person will be willing to risk exposing and exploring the vulnerabilities that got the person stuck in the first place and need working through to get the person moving again into a flourishing future of possibilities.
In conclusion, empathy is supposed to be like motherhood, apple pie, and puppies. What’s not to like? A lot. People can be difficult—very difficult—why should empathizing with them be easy? Yet most of the things that are cited as reasons for criticizing and dismissing empathy—emotional contagion, projection, misinterpretation, gossip, messages lost in translation and devaluing language—are actually breakdowns of empathy. With practice and training, one’s empathy expands to shift breakdowns in empathy to breakthroughs in understanding, possibilities of flourishing, enhanced humanity, relatedness, and building community.
[i] Empathy is now a major publishing event. There is a wave of books on empathy—popular, scientific, political, and scholarly. For example, Frans de Waal’s The Age of Empathy explores empathy between humans and higher animals; J.D. Trout’s The Empathy Gap considers empathy and social justice from the perspective of Ignatian Humanism; Jeremy Rifkin’s The Empathic Civilization, 800 pages long in hardcover (don’t drop it on your foot!) channels Teilhard de Chardin’s idea of a global consciousness, now including the politics of empathy; Jean Decety’s Social Neuroscience establishes correlations between sensations, affects, and emotions using functional magnetic resonance imaging technology (fMRI) as a kind of x-ray for the soul, exploring the relation between empathy and psychopathy (with his colleague Kent Kiehl); Simon Baron-Cohen’s Zero Degrees of Empathy considers the role of empathy in cruelty and disorders of empathy such as psychopathy and autism. Thomas Farrow’s (ed.) Empathy in Mental Illness drills down scientifically on the disorders of empathy in all their profound differences. See also: Susan Lanzoni, Empathy: A History (Yale 2018); any collectioin on social neuroscience by Jean Decety; William R.Miller, Listening Well: The Art of Empathic Understanding (WIPF and Stock, 2018); Cris Beam, I feel You: The Surprising Power of Extreme Empathy (Houghton Mifflin, 2018); Jodi Halpern, From Detached Concern to Empathy: Humanizing Medical Practice, (Oxford, 2001); David Howe, Empathy: What It Is and Why It Matters (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013); Leslie Jamisom, The Empathy Exams (Essays) (Graywolf, 2014); Thomas Kohut, Empathy and the Historical Understanding of the Human Past (Routledge 2021).
[ii] I discuss this proposition in detail in Lou Agosta. (2015). A Rumor of Empathy: Resistance, Narrative Recovery in Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy. London: Routledge (Taylor and Francis): 53, 55, 117, 190.
[iii] Bessel van der Kolk. (2014). The Body Keeps the Score: Mind, Brain and Body in the Transformation of Trauma. New York: Penguin Books.
Every parent, teacher, doctor, social worker, sales person, person with customers, first responder, consultant, neighbor, or taxi driver already knows a lot about empathy. They would not be successful, much less survive, if they did not practice empathy. You may need a license to be a barber and cut hair. However, outside totalitarian state, no one can require that you have a license to do what comes spontaneously to the vast majority of human beings—be empathic. However, an expert can be helpful in clarifying distinctions, providing tips and techniques, and modeling the empathy you want to get or apply and expand.
Parents are naturally empathic towards their children; teachers, towards their students; medical doctors, towards their patients; business people, towards their customers, consultants towards their clients, and so on. Even if a person is clumsy and does not get empathy quite right, people can’t stop doing it. Yes, that’s right—people can’t stop being empathic; but then fear stops them—fear of experiencing vicariously another person’s pain, struggle, conflict, or suffering—and a breakdown occurs in their empathy. There must be something wrong here! Blame starts flying around. They blame themselves. They blame the other person. They blame empathy.
Even if doctors are trained to “tune down” their spontaneous empathy until it becomes “detached concern”—and good reasons exist for doing that at times—empathy naturally breaks through, and they often relate authentically to their patients as one human being to another in spite of themselves.[i]
The really useful thing is that in learning to contract one’s empathy, one is also learning expand it, because one is learning to regulate and manage empathy. Contracting one’s empathy also means being able to expand it. “Dialing down” empathy also means being able to “dial up” empathy.
“Dialing down” empathy does not mean “stop listening,” “be unkind,” “blame,” “make wrong,” “reject,” “be hostile,” “use devaluing speech,” or “feign thoughtlessness.” Such a response would be absurd.
There is a sense in which a feeling may be socially appropriate or inappropriate—for example to laugh at a funeral when nothing is funny—feelings are valid in themselves in that they always are what they are.
A feeling may be an inarticulate judgment—fear being the judgment that one should run from danger—especially if a mountain lion is coming around the bend. The fear is an absolute given in the moment.
One may wish that one felt differently than one does in fact feel in the moment; but that one feels a certain way is an absolute given.
The best way to turn fear into an out-an-out panic attack is to say to oneself: “This (fear) should not be!” But of course it is, so that means what? One has lost control. Panic!
The recommendation? Accepting the feelings as what’s so does not make an unpleasant feeling any easier to bear, but it takes away its power, drains the upset out of it, and gives one space to be in equilibrium with oneself again. Thus, radical acceptance of the feeling is an effective method of “dialing down” one’s empathy.
Most people are naturally empathic, but they lack practice. They set about practicing empathy, but are clumsy. Or they had a bad experience in relation to their own empathy or someone else’s (lack of) empathy. They develop a “flinch reflex” when it comes to practicing empathy. For such individuals, resistance to empathy replaces their spontaneous empathy. Most people use empathy every day, and do not need an expert to tell them what it is. Olympic athletes get a coach, but it is not because they are not good at what they do. They are good at what they do; and are striving to get to the next level of excellence. Few people claim to be really good at empathizing. Those persons who are practiced in empathy can be useful coaches in helping one to clarify definitions, engage the hard cases, and distinguish how to transform breakdowns of empathy into breakthroughs that make a difference.
Using empathy—practicing empathy—sometimes means being used by empathy. Yes, empathy uses us.
“Being used by empathy” means that the person has trained in being empathic, so that the person has a level of mastery that allows the person to be empathic (or not) without thinking too much about it. Empathy has become practiced, habitual, and automatic.
There’s what we know we know about empathy. There’s what we know we do not know about empathy and hope to find out. Where did the word come from? What are mirror neurons anyway? How does one expand one’s empathy?
Finally, there is what we do not even know we do not know about empathy. The third area is where this book and its training operates—what we do not even know we do not know: our blind spots about empathy; our vulnerability, shame, and cynicism in relating to others; and our resistance to empathy.
Empathy requires that one get “up close and personal” with other people. Other people can be notoriously difficult, irritable, dishonest, manipulative, apathetic, too pushy, or contrary. Other people resist being on the receiving end of empathy, because being understood makes them feel vulnerable.
If someone understands me, really understands me, then he can use what he understands about me to take advantage of me. Now an authentically empathic person would not do that, but the world is not known for being filled with authentically empathic people.
Well-intentioned persons sometimes simply misunderstand what empathy is and are resisting something else that they happen to call “empathy.” They mistake the breakdown of empathy in emotional contagion, conformity, projection, distortion, mind reading, or lack of responsiveness, for empathy proper, and throw out the baby with the proverbial bath water. The empathy lesson in confronting resistance to empathy is direct: remove the resistance to empathy, and empathy comes forth, develops, and blossoms. Empathy expands.
Another person’s blind spots are easy to see, but one struggles to catch a glimpse of one’s own. Thus, one of my own blind spots about empathy comes into view, albeit in my peripheral vision. When I do not get my way, I have the thought that the other person (or the world) is unempathic. This is of course absurd and self-serving, though, heaven knows, empathy is unevenly distributed in the world. The empathy lesson? Wherever there is empathy, can narcissism be far away? (No.) Thus, I clean up the thought—give it up, distinguish it as not helpful, let it go. But no matter how may times I give it up, the next time I am frustrated, it seems like there is that thought again, coming into view like the grin on the Cheshire cat. Only now it becomes an inside joke, and a challenge to earn my empathic wings everyday.
This lesson is easy to express, hard to do. The devil is in the details. One has to descend into the hell of one’s empathy breakdowns in order to emerge from the refiner’s fire of self-inquiry with renewed commitment to empathy, relatedness, and community. This sounds too hard. No one said it would be easy.
How to start? One begins by introspecting. Acknowledging one’s own lack of integrity and inauthenticity in the matter of empathy. Like the labors of the mythical hero Hercules, there is a whole lot of shoveling of manure to be performed.
Cleaning up broken interpersonal relationships is on the agenda. Repairing integrity outages and inauthenticities is in order. Empathy training includes the requirement to go out into the world of one’s relations with other persons and engage and practice.
The very idea of resistance to empathy inspires resistance. The idea of resistance to empathy requires motivation.
What could that even be? Resistance to empathy seems to make no sense. It sounds like resisting motherhood, puppies, or apple pie.
The idea that some people would resist empathy is surprising. Very surprising. What’s not to like about empathy? A great deal it seems. Even within this way of talking, appearances can be deceptive. Puppies make a mess on the new carpet. Apple pie is delicious, but it makes one fat. Mothers are wonderful people. The human race owes its existence to those who are mothers both individually and as a community; but motherhood is a damn tough job, not withstanding its many rewards. Mothers require a lot of support. Volunteers?
In general, receiving empathy is like getting a gift; providing empathy requires effort. Getting empathy is a benefit. Providing empathy requires listening to the other person, attending to one’s introspective reaction to the other person, managing the increase in tension, living with the uncertainty of being open to the other person, being vulnerable, and risking misunderstanding. This is why providing empathy inspires resistance. It requires work.
On the other hand, receiving empathy from a committed listener has been compared to sinking back into a warm bath. It is relaxing. It reduces stress. It is restorative of one’s emotional equilibrium. However, even in a one-on-one conversation, receiving empathy sometimes feels like being publicly acknowledged and recognized at a banquet. It has its uncomfortable side.
It is not always easy to be explicitly acknowledged and recognized for one’s contribution. One may feel ambivalent about being exposed and vulnerable. So even receiving empathy, though properly regarded as a benefit, has its conditions and qualifications; and some people are made painfully self-conscious by being acknowledged.
Whether one is giving empathy or receiving it, empathy has its dark side. If one is committed to giving empathy—being empathic—one is vulnerable to burnout, empathic distress, or “compassion fatigue.” If one is on the receiving end of empathic receptivity, though a restorative experience, one is still exposed in one’s potential weaknesses and limitations. One feels vulnerable to misunderstanding by the other person, to whom one has exposed oneself emotionally.
At a deeper level, resistance to empathy lives in our individual and collective blind spots about our dear self. Where there is empathy, can narcissism be far away? “Narcissism” is a way of relating to oneself. The mythical Narcissus was an attractive young man. He was so enamored of his own reflection in the mirror-like surface of the pond—this was before the invention of “selfies”—that he did not see the dangers of his surroundings. In different versions of the myth, Narcissus either fell into the water, drowning in his own image of himself, or he was consumed—metaphorically eaten—by the lion of his narcissistic desires, who also frequented the watering hole.
The empathy lesson of the myth of Narcissus? Empathy requires de-emphasizing “the dear self.” Even for someone committed to giving empathy such a de-emphasis of self-love is not automatic. When the empathy being delivered includes recognition, people struggling with self-esteem issues—either too much or too little—find it challenging just to accept the acknowledgement. “Naw, it wasn’t nothing—just doin’ my job.” It is not easy to be acknowledged, and therein lies resistance to empathy, too. Though receiving empathy feels good, it is not easy to open up to another person and acknowledge one’s personal issues, sufferings, sources of shame, or struggles.
In every instance of resistance to empathy, the empathy lesson consists in identifying, engaging, reducing, managing, or eliminating, the resistance to empathy by interpreting the resistance; driving out cynicism, shame, guilt (and so on); saying what is missing the presence of which would make a difference (such as respect for boundaries or contribution); and being open to the possibility—of expanded empathy.
When the resistance is reduced, empathy has space to expand, which it does so spontaneously as well as through providing explicit practices, tactics, strategies, and training.
The qualities that make organizations successful are not always the qualities that enhance their empathy. I am so bold as to assert this generalization applies whether the institution is a tax paying public one, listed on the stock exchange, or a nonprofit, community organization. Whether the corporate mission is to deliver value in manufacturing automobiles or to serve the community by collecting and distributing whole human blood to sick people, the ultimate truth is: no money, no mission.
Yet to say that the purpose of one’s business is to make money is like saying the purpose of life is to keep on breathing. Well, okay. The two are closely related. Definitely, don’t stop breathing. But somehow “don’t stop breathing” is not very useful as life guidance; and, likewise, “make money” is not a useful business strategy.
The ongoing process of living—or doing business—should not be confused with the purpose, vision, strategy, and meaning of the activity in the direction of excellence, whether in business or the community.
In most successful organizations, expanding revenue is a result of a successful strategy—applications and implementations that deliver value—and satisfy the demands of the customers, employees, and stakeholders. The expanded revenue is the effect of getting the vision and implementation just right, not the cause of it.
Successful enterprises of all kinds have to handle navigating an intricate, complex network of rules assigned by government, law enforcement, taxing authorities, and non-governmental special interest groups. Business and nonprofit enterprises must contend with competing organizations that assert and authentically believe that they can provide the product or service at lower cost or higher quality. Within the enterprise itself, the organization must balance the personalities of the leaders, individual contributors (workers), and stake-holders, who make up the organization.
An inherent challenge exists in building organizations and crafting an administrative structure that actually functions; and then getting the administrative structure—the bureaucracy—to act in a responsive and balanced way to customers, employees, and stake-holders.
Economies of scale that require fitting people into functions that can be substituted for one another to increase efficiency rarely expand empathy, because empathy consists in recognizing differences in individual contributions.
Hear me say it, and not for the last time: the things that make us good at business, including the corporate transformation of American medicine and education, do not always expand our empathy. What to do about it? The battle is joined. The recommendation?
Let your customers, constituents, or stake-holders train you in empathy: Realize that if you do not respond empathically, the customers are just going to go quietly to the competitor that does. Empathy is good for business. If the customer has a complaint that he is having trouble expressing, then use one’s listening skills to get to the bottom of things.
If the customer expresses anger, know that empathy is one of the best methods, bar none, of deescalating conflict and soothing anger. “Gee, it really does sound like you have not been well treated. Let’s see what we can do to make things better” [or words to that effect].
Still, I do not know of a single organization that as of the date of publication of this book, when making decisions, serving customers, documenting complaints, closing sales, managing conflicts of interest, asks: “What would the empathic response be?”
To be sure, aspects of the empathic response are included in such common factors as “be respectful to customers,” “be helpful to clients,” “keep one’s agreements,” “strive to deliver value.” Empathy is already in the mix, and many customers are willing to pay a premium for empathic services even if they do not use the word “empathy.”
The astute businessperson, committed to expanding the enterprise, knows that “if you want to gather honey, do not knock over the bees’ nest.” This is distinct from empathy, but not by much. Thus, the task is to nurture the seeds of empathy already present in abundance, but lying in hiding in cynicism and denial, while making the case that smart organizations build and deliver value empathically.
The legendary Marshall Field, one of the inventors of the department store, on which the sun is now setting, and a kinder, gentler robber baron of capitalism, is famously quoted as saying, “Give the lady what she wants.” It made Field rich, and his workers well off. It is perhaps a sign of the times that Field’s was purchased by Macy’s some years ago, which has struggles of its own in a world in which retail, having been “Amazoned,” is not what it used to be. So the tenuousness of the market value of empathy can be measured by the mark down of the once storied Field’s Enterprises in the face of Internet shopping.
An alternative redescription of the fire sale of Marshall Field’s flagship stores is that individualized, personalized, customized one-on-one service has moved to the ultimate free market, the Internet, once again, disintermediating the disintermediators. I would not rule out expanded empathy in online cyberspace, but, even allowing for the convenience of shopping naked, it is a work in progress.
Even in mild and efficient bureaucracies, people misuse organizational rules and paper work to create resistance to empathy. Passing the buck, “Not my job,” “I’ll have to get back to you,” “We received no such request,” “I don’t know, and I can’t tell you when,” are common responses. Bureaucrats (which used to mean “office worker,” but is now a devaluing term) address such pseudo-answers not only to customers, but also to their coworkers and managers.
Resistance to empathy uses organizational rules and regulations to build protective walls, instead of teamwork. Without concern for the other person, bureaucracy unwittingly creates obstacles that prevent workers from being present with one another.
Mutually implementing and contributing to agreements with the organization and one another is not a priority. Perpetuating the bureaucracy is. Managing permissions and gaming the system occur to avoid work, rework, and overwork. The threat of uncompensated overtime and overwork consumes the energy required to get the job done.
People automatically and unwittingly fall into resistance to empathy, exploiting the tendency to be territorial.
The organization itself can show up as the unempathic authority figure—like the unempathic parent, who leaves the child feeling devalued, depressed, and de-energized. In response, an individual pushes back against the organization and its rules, disagreeing and speaking truth to power.
Rarely does the organization respond empathically to the individual, but rather urges the individual to conform. The individual asks for an accommodation. “Power” exhorts the individual to comply. “Power” says, “I did not make up the rules—I just enforce them.”
The individual states that the organization exists to serve the stake-holders, not to perpetuate its own rule-making. But rule-making has a way of becoming habit forming, if not addictive. Whenever a problem, issue, or breakdown occurs, the tendency is to try to formulate a rule to cover the new case. If the individual continues for any amount of time in a state of non-compliance, then “power” tends to experience a loss of authority, which is deeply threatening and unacceptable to “power.” Power escalates efforts to force compliance. Power imposes sanctions, increasing the cost to the individual. Empathy struggles to make a difference and be heard.
Compliance is definitely trending. This is the age of compliance. And there is nothing wrong with compliance as such. Stop on red; go on green. Yet sometimes so many “shoulds” exist that doing one’s job can end up on a slope of diminishing returns. Filling out the required paperwork takes an increasing percentage of the workday.
For example, some people train to become nurses because they care about other people, and they want to take care of them and their health. However, when virtually every patient encounter has to be documented to satisfy compliance regulations, then an eight-hour workday includes hours of electronic documentation. Many nurses are saying, “This is not what I signed up for.” Engagement—a synonym for empathic nursing encounters—struggles for space to make a difference.
“Compliance” includes conforming to acceptable boundaries and limits. No one is saying break the rules. No one is saying disregard boundaries. Rather one is saying relate to rules and boundaries empathically. But what does that mean? Even if the light is green, look both ways for emergency equipment or an inattentive driver running the light. Don’t be dead right. And as applied to empathy?
Empathy is about traversing boundaries between individuals. But these include not only boundaries between the self and the other, but boundaries between those in a position of authority and subordinates, between insiders and outsiders in communities, and between those who are insiders and those who feel left out—or are actually marginalized and have become invisible.
Humor and empathy versus cynicism
Cynicism and denial are the enemies of empathy. The empathy lessons are simple: Empathy up, cynicism down. Humor up, empathy up. Yet in the face of life’s challenges, setbacks, and struggles to survive, everyone gets cynical on a bad day.
Ground zero of cynicism and humor is Scott Adam’s Dilbert cartoon. It is wickedly funny, because it expresses more than a grain of truth about dysfunctional, anti-empathic organizations.
In one classic example, the pointy-haired boss says that from now on the organization will assign job functions based on the Myers-Briggs Personality Test (MBPT). For those readers who may not know, the MBPT is the test that distinguishes introversion and extroversion, thinking and feeling, and related categories. The boss continues: “For those of you who do not have a personality, one will be assigned by the human resources department.”[ii] I must say that I am deeply ashamed of myself—I can’t stop laughing.
In humor, stress and psychological tension are created by violating a standard—saying people in corporate cubicles have no personality—and then the stress is released in laughter by the mechanism of the joke such as a pun, double meaning, or violation of expectations.
Humor is closely related to empathy in that both humor and empathy cross a boundary between the self and the other. However, unlike empathy, in which the boundary crossing occurs respectfully, with acknowledgement of the other person’s contribution or struggle, and with recognition of humanity, in humor the boundary between self and other is crossed with aggression, put down, or (in other cases) sexuality. The rule? The more objectionable the joke is, the funnier it is. The put down, “If you do not have a personality, one will be assigned by HR” is indeed wickedly funny; but it is also deeply debunking of the corporate world (and shaming of the individual), in which people come to feel like a gear in an inhuman mechanism.
So empathy for the long suffering inhabitants of corporate cubicles, whose personalities are at risk of being erased, does come to the surface after all. The laughter largely dissolves the cynicism. It is a commonplace in the organizational world that people function as replaceable cogs in a well-oiled machine. Therefore, the cartoon is an example of what not to do. Cynicism and shame drive out empathy; and, more importantly, driving out cynicism and shame create a space into which empathy stands a chance and can expand spontaneously.
How then does one drive out cynicism, shame, denial, and so on? The short answer is by calling it out, acknowledging it, interpreting it, and offering an alternative point of view. Not “alternative facts,” which have come to mean “spin” and “deception”; but an alternative perspective. It is now cynicism versus empathy in the organization.
For example: “Given the challenges we are facing, it is easy to become cynical. However, I have an alternative point of view. If we adhere to our commitments, then the way forward is clear. Not easy, but clear. We have to … remember who we authentically are, serve the customer, be inclusive, expand the community, be guided by our empathy (and so on). We have to live up to our commitment that everyone who comes in contact with the organization, even if we cannot completely solve their problem, is left whole and complete, treated with dignity and respect (and empathy).”
In the face of pervasive cynicism, it takes courage for a person to responds empathically. Such a person may be perceived as a threat to the prevailing, default attitude of “I won’t call you on your lack of authenticity if you don’t call me on mine.” Such a committed person is at risk in standing out from the crowd; but such a person just might provide the leadership, gather the power to make a difference, get the job done with grace and ease under pressure—and get a promotion.
One does not even have to stop being cynical, since it is so pervasive, but one has to adhere to one’s commitment to making a contribution, work to make a positive difference, and deliver value on one’s agreements.
Cynicism is shown up for what it is: taking the easy way out. The practice of empathy is hard work.
It is not only the executive suite, but also the front and back office and every part of the supply chain in between that are staffed by harried people pushed down into survival mode by a cruel gig economy where empathy is not a priority. Of course, empathy gets paid lip service. Please pardon the double negative—one dare not not pay empathy lip service.
However, all-too-often, empathy is too messy. It is too complex. We are not even sure what empathy would mean in an organizational context. We need results now. Suck it up. Get over it. Conform! Nor is there anything wrong with conforming as such. Submit your expense report on time. Even the customer wants to conform, if only he could get the product to function as designed. It is just that empathy is too time consuming, which means—it is too costly.
Yet never was empathy more important than when it seems there is no time for it. Positively expressed, as with most forms of resistance, the method of overcoming it is to call it out and interpret it. Once visible and explicit, it is less formidable.
The empathy of cross-functional teams, managing by walking around, making a contribution, building the bigger team, being inclusive of all the stake-holders, communicating goals and connecting the dots between individual accomplishments and the objectives of the entire organization—these create a clearing in which empathy shows up and makes a profound contribution to the success of the organization.
In addition, one’s employer is not one’s parent. Remember the sign in the common kitchen that says “Your mother does not work here—clean up your dirty dishes!”? Of course your mom told you that, too, and she did “work here” at home, and it still hasn’t snuck in.
Notwithstanding the rich comic possibilities, one’s employer and its leaders do indeed “work here.” Leaders provide powerful examples to whom we look for inspiration. This must give one pause about the state of leadership today. Just as children have to get empathy from their parents before they can give it to others, employees have to see and experience examples of empathy from their leaders to be effective in their own roles as individual contributors. The idea is not to be paternalistic, but to lead by example, the example of empathy.
The difference between banging on a stone and building a cathedral
Executives of all kinds have varying degrees of empathy and different attitudes towards it. It may sound like yet another burden that the CEO now also has to take the role of “Chief Empathy Officer.” This comes up for detailed discussion below in the chapter on the empathy application to “Business and empathy, capitalist tool.”
Meanwhile, when I am bold and ask executives what is the budget in the organization for empathy training and empathy consulting, they usually look at me with a blank stare or just say “zero.” However, when I ask what is the budget to reduce conflict, enhance teamwork, innovate and improve productivity, inspire participation, cause the staff to take ownership of the mission and honor their agreements, then the leaderships sees possibility where none had previously been present and makes it a priority to obtain a budget.
Simply stated, empathy training consists in surfacing the resistances to empathy, the pervasive fear and cynicism (and so on) in the organization that lurks just beneath the surface; interpreting the resistance, and driving it out: “It is perfectly understandable that you would be cynical, given what you have been through, but that is not who you (we) authentically are. Rather we are the possibility of [health, transportation, nutrition, education, retirement, housing, recreation, and so on (according to the mission of the organization)].”
What would it take to design agreements that overcome resistance and commit to aligning organizational and individual goals and then taking action to implement the agreements on an ongoing schedule? The empathy training consists in engaging in a sustained dialogue for possibility around agreements that work for everyone in delivering value.
In particular, overcoming resistance to empathy, expanding empathy, is on the critical path to eliminating or at least reducing organizational conflicts and dysfunctional behaviors. When staff, executives, stake-holders, and so on, expand their empathy for one another and for customers, they are able to deescalate confrontations and negativity; they avoid provocative and devaluing language; and they are able to head off dignity violations, all of which reduce the conflicts that literally suck the life out of organizations.
When employees appreciate the possibilities of empathy, they even try to replace office politics with professional behavior. Staff get more done because they can concentrate on doing their jobs, working smarter, and serving customers and coworkers rather than struggling with departmental politics.
In addition, expanding empathy—overcoming resistance to empathy—is on the critical path to building teams. Empathy is the foundation of community, and the team is nothing if not a community. In empathy, people practice giving acknowledgment and recognition for their contribution to the success of the team and the organization. Being inclusive does not always come naturally or easily to us humans, territorial creatures that we are. We oscillate between closeness and distance like a pendulum.
However, no organization can succeed without including every contributor and turning him or her loose to do the job at hand. Even in hierarchical organizations, where departmental boundaries are rigid, empathy works to demonstrate that good fences makes good neighbors but that gates are needed in the fences through which empathy can be practiced.
Expanding empathy is also on the critical path to innovation and enhancing productivity, because people feel gotten for whom they are as a possibility and as a contribution. They stop withholding and working in quasi-competitive isolation. When they get in touch with one another as possibilities, the business results take off.
Successful leaders know the importance of drawing on the talents of every contributor. When employees get a sense of how their role and contribution fits into the whole, they work to deliver on their commitments.
That is the key to improved productivity. People are generous in sharing their ideas for process and product improvement, because they feel confident their contribution makes a difference and is recognized. For example, two workers are going through the same motions, making the same gestures. An empathic milieu makes the difference between the one, who is banging with a hammer and chisel on a chunk of stone, and the other, who is building a cathedral. The worker’s gestures are exactly the same. The one is sentenced to hard labor; the other participates in greatness.
[i] Jodi Halpern. (2001). From Detached Concern to Empathy: Humanizing Medical Practice. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
[ii] Scott Adams. (1996). The Dilbert Principle. New York: Harper Business.
A person can regulate his or her empathy up or down by crossing the street. The empathy lesson is that if you can cross the street to avoid the beggar, regulating your empathy down, then you can cross the street (as well as use other methods) to expand your empathy, regulating it upward. So don’t tell me that empathy cannot be dialed up or dialed down with practice. That’s the point: practice.
Crossing the street is what happened in another story with which many readers are already familiar. The story of the Good Samaritan, one of the parables of Jesus of Nazareth, tells of two people who crossed the street, and one who did not. In the story, a traveler was waylaid by robbers. He is left for dead by the side of the road. The first two persons—the Levite and the priest experienced empathic distress, and, crossed the street, passing by the victim.
The Samaritan, however, was not overwhelmed by the victim’s suffering. The Samaritan perceived the suffering; he had a vicarious experience of the suffering that did not over-stimulate him with suffering and cause empathic distress. The Samaritan saw a fellow human being; recognized the suffering humanity; and he decided to get involved.
Multiple empathy lessons are available here. First, to regulate one’s empathy, cross the street. This is an edgy and confrontational way of putting it, but it is literally accurate. Cross the street away from the neighbor to “down regulate” your empathy, and experience less empathic distress; and cross the street towards your neighbor to expand your empathy in the direction of creating an inclusive community of persons, who recognize the value of cooperation.
The empathy lesson is that the vicarious experience does not have to be overwhelming. Rather, with practice, one is able to shift one’s focus from suffering to neighborliness; one is able to shift one’s attention from suffering to making a difference and enhanced self-esteem, expanding community and shared humanity.
Crossing the street is not the only way to reduce one’s chance of empathic distress or responding empathically. One may imaginatively changes places with the survivor and reflect that one would want the other’s help if one were in a similar predicament. One may spontaneously and without thinking act impulsively to be helpful, because one’s upbringing has made such responsiveness a habitual practice. (I believe this was the case with the Samaritan.) One may reflect, “I am safe and the survivor is no danger to me and it is my turn to help out.”
Or, on the contrary, one may make a devaluing judgment such as “The guy deserved what he got.” Such a judgment would be inaccurate—and in this case it would literally add insult to injury—but such thoughts do occur among by-standers. The passers-by may have just been hard-hearted. One person’s empathy is another’s antipathy. The language speaks volumes.
The empathy lesson consists in distinguishing such a devaluing thought; acknowledging that thinking is profoundly different than acting and should not be confused with it. The empathy lessons is to take action coming from one’s authentic commitments to building community through empathy, not devaluing thoughts.
This story is an empathy lesson that also instructs us in the difference between empathy and compassion. The Samaritan’s empathy told him what the other person was experiencing; his compassion (and ethics) told him what to do about it.
This bears repeating: empathy tells one what the other person is experiencing; compassion (and ethics) tell one what to do about it.
We are usually taught to devalue the behavior of the Levite and the priest; and surely they do not win a prize. Yet in an alternative point of view, they were all-too-human. Seeing all that suffering embodied in the survivor, they just couldn’t take it. They succumbed to empathic distress.
They experienced a breakdown of their empathic receptivity, and were overwhelmed in a kind of instant empathy fatigue (not compassion fatigue).
In an alternative reading of the parable, the would-be rescuers dial down the granularity of their empathic receptivity, so as not to be too sensitive to the suffering, even as they get a sample of the suffering, which is needed to inform their humanity.
The Good Samaritan, who is a seemingly infinite source of insight, is called to his empathic neighborliness by the distress of the injured traveller. The traveller who had fallen among thieves and was beaten near to death creates the possibility of empathic community by his loss of human well-being. He has been reduced to a lump of suffering, broken, physical pain.
The Samaritan rescues the traveller; the traveller humanizes the Samaritan, calling him not just to the role of an altruist doing a good deed (though that occurs too), but to his possibility as a human being in relation to another fragile, suffering, dependent human being.
The stricken traveller, by his very being, gives the Samaritan his own humanness. This occurs precisely in making the Samaritan a neighbor in answering the question, “Who is one’s neighbor?” Such was the trick question that the Pharisees posed to Jesus, to which this parable is the response.
The Samaritan gives humanness to the distressed traveller in an intervention that defines them as part of the same community of fellow travellers—neighbors—on the road of life.
In an alternative retelling of the story suppose that the Levite and the priest were “natural empaths,” biologically predisposed to be sensitive to the pain and suffering of other people. They were endowed with a certain “delicacy of empathy,” and they feel the suffering of the world deeply. Perhaps too deeply. Some people report: “I am a natural empath—and I suffer because I feel the pain of others too acutely. I started out being empathic—but people took advantage of me—and even when they didn’t, I was just too empathic; I got overwhelmed with sensation and sucked dry—the result was burnout, compassion fatigue. Nice guys finish last—so do empathic ones.”
Thus, the lament of the natural empath.
Empathy becomes a burden, because the world is filled with so much suffering. Yet if the person uses avoidance to “down regulate” their empathy, the person feels guilty because the individual believes that what she is doing is unkind, thoughtless, lacking in fellow feeling, and—unempathic.
So the natural empath falls into a double bind, and her suffering seems inevitable. She is over-whelmed by too much openness to the suffering of the other person or over-whelmed by guilt at not living up to her own standards of fellow-feeling and ethics.
These statements imply that empathy cannot be regulated through training, albeit a training that goes in the opposite direction (from too much empathy in the moment to less empathy) than that required by the majority of people, who are out of touch with their feelings and need to “up regulate” their empathy. The empathy lesson for the natural empath is to be more flexible about her ethical standards, while attempting to tune down her empathic distress.
Some people are skeptical that “natural empaths” are all that they say they are. Natural empaths in their natural state assert that they feel overwhelmed and distressed by other people’s thoughts and feelings. I see no reason to doubt such statements. However, to some critics, a redescription of the natural empath asserts that the latter are “irritable” and “hypersensitive.”
Empathy is recognizing and understanding the other’s perspective and then communicating that understanding to the other person. Someone who is unwittingly, even helplessly, swept along by the other’s feelings is not really being empathic. Over-identification, not empathy?[i]
The way out of this apparent impasse is to consider that the natural empath does indeed get empathic receptivity right in empathic openness to the other’s distress, but then the person’s empathy misfires.
Whether the misfiring is over-identification, resulting in empathic distress, depends on the description and redescription. Standing on the sidelines and saying “Try harder!” is easy to do. Where is the training the person needs when they need it?
The recommendation regarding training? Most people need to expand their empathy; some people—natural empaths—need to contract (or inhibit) their empathy. Empathy regulation—learning to expand and contract empathy—is the imperative in either case.
Instead of complaining about being an overly sensitive natural empath (however accurate that may be) do the work of practicing empathy by “down regulating” one’s empathy in a given situation, transforming empathic distress into a vicarious experience. Instead of complaining about not being pre-disposed to empathy, get up and do the work of practicing empathy, which for most persons means “up regulating,” expanding their empathy.