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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.
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