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Resistance to Empathy and How to Overcome it (Part 2): Individual Provider and Receiver (of Empathy)

Overcoming Individual resistance to empathy (provider)

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. 

Overcoming individual resistance to empathy (recipient)

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.

Resistance to Empathy and How to Overcome it (Part 1: Organizational Resistance to Empathy)

You don’t need an expert to practice empathy

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. 

Overcome resistance to empathy: 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.

Notes

[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.

Empathy is good for your health and well-being (The evidence)

Empathy is good for your health and well-being: Empathy is on a short list of stress reduction practices including meditation (mindfulness), Tai Chi, and Yoga. Receiving empathy in the form of a gracious and generous listening is like getting a spa treatment for the soul. But do not settle for metaphors.

For evidence-based research on empathy, empathy and stress reduction, and empathy training you may start by googling: Antoni et al. 2011; Ciaramicoli 2016; Del Canale et al 2012; Farrow et al. 2007; Irwin et al. 2012; Maes 1995, 1999; Pollack et al. 2002; Rakel et al. 2009; Segerstrom and Miller 2004; Slavich et al. 2013 [this list is not complete]. 

You do not have to buy the book, Empathy Lessons, to get the research, but if you would like more detail see especially Chapters Four and Six in Empathy Lessons (click here to get book from Amazon).

[Also included are chapters on the Top 30 Tips and Techniques for Expanding Empathy, Overcoming Resistance to Empathy, Empathy Breakdowns, Empathy as the New Love, Empathy versus Bullying, and more.] 

The healing powers of stress reduction are formidable. Expanding empathy reduces stress; and reducing stress expands empathy. A positive feedback loop is enacted. Expanding empathy expands well-being.  Here empathy is both the end and the means.

A substantial body of evidence-based science indicates that empathy is good for a person’s health. This is not “breaking news” and was not just published yesterday. We don’t need more data, we need to start applying it: we need expanded empathy.

Evidence-based research demonstrates the correlation between health care providers who deliver empathy to their patients and favorable healthcare

Well-being rides the wave of empathy

outcomes. What is especially interesting is that some of these evidence-based studies specifically exclude psychiatric disorders and include mainline medical outcomes such as reduced cholesterol, improved type 2 diabetes, and improvement in related “life style” disorders.

Generalizing on this research, a small set of practices such as receiving empathy, meditation (mindfulness), yogic meditation, and Tai Chi, promote well-being by reducing inflammation. These practices are not reducible to empathy (or vice versa), but they all share a common factor: reduced inflammation. These anti-inflammatory interventions have been shown to make a difference in controlled experiments, evidence-based research, and peer-reviewed publications.

Using empathy in relating to people is a lot like using a parachute if you jump out of an airplane or getting a shot of penicillin if one has a bacterial infection. The evidence is overwhelming that such a practice is appropriate and useful in the vast majority of cases. The accumulated mass of decades of experience also counts as evidence in a strict sense. Any so-called hidden or confounding variables will be “washed out” by the massive amount of evidence that parachutes and penicillin produce the desired main effect. 

Indeed it would be unethical to perform a double blind test of penicillin at this time, since if a person needed the drug and it were available it would be unethical not to give it to him. Yes, there are a few exceptions – some people are allergic to penicillin. But by far and in large, if you do not begin with empathy in relating to other people, you are headed for trouble.

Empathy is at the top of my list of stress reduction methods, but is not the only item on it. Empathy alongwith mindfulness (a form of meditation), Yoga, Tai Chi, spending time in a sensory deprivation tank (not otherwise discussed here), and certain naturally occurring steroids, need to be better known as interventions that reduce inflammation and restore homeostatic equilibrium to the body according to evidence based research.

Biology has got us humans in a bind, since the biology did not evolve at the same rate as our human social structures. When bacteria attack the human body, the body’s immune system mounts an inflammatory defense that sends macrophages to the site of the attack and causes “sickness behavior” in the person. The infected person takes to bed, sleeps either too much or too little, has no appetite (or too much appetite), experiences low energy, possibly has a fever, including the “blahs,” body aches, and flu-like symptoms. This response has evolved over millions of years, and is basically healthy as the body conserves its energy and fights off the infection using its natural immune response.

Now fast forward to modern times. This natural response did not envision the stresses of modern life back when we were short stature, proto-humanoids inhabiting the Serengeti Plain and defending ourselves against large predators. Basically, the body responds in the same way to the chronic stressors of modern life—the boss at work is a bully, the mortgage is over-due, the children are acting out, the spouse is having a midlife crisis—and the result is “sickness behavior”—many of the symptoms of which resemble clinical depression—but there is no infection, just inflammation. 

The inflammation becomes chronic and the body loses its sensitivity to naturally occurring anti-inflammatory hormones, which would ordinarily kick in to “down regulate” the inflammation after a few days. Peer reviewed papers demonstrate that interventions such as empathy reduce biological markers of inflammation and restore equilibrium. This is also a metaphor. When an angry—“inflamed”—person is listened to empathically—is given a “good listening” as I like to say—the person frequently calms down and regains his equilibrium. 

Empathy migrates onto the short list of inflammation reducing interventions. The compelling conclusion is that empathy is good for your well-being.

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(c) Lou Agosta, PhD and the Chicago Empathy Project

The case of Dr Know-it-all: Empathy gives us our humanity

You do not need a philosopher to tell you what empathy is. What then do you need? How about a folktale, a fairy tale, a narrative, a Märchen?

Rather than start with a definition of empathy, my proposal is to start by telling a couple of stories, in which empathy (and its breakdown) plays a crucial role. Both stories are anonymous folktales from the collection edited by the Brothers Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm. The distilled wisdom of the ages accumulated in traditional anonymous narratives will do nicely. Both stories include a significant amount of humor, underscoring that humor and empathy are closely related (on humor and creating a community see also Ted Cohen’s book Jokes (1999)). 

How so? In both humor and empathy one crosses the boundary between self and other while preserving that boundary. In both humor and empathy one builds a community, even if only of two people, by transiently, temporarily weakening the boundary between self and other, then reestablishing it. In the case of humor, the boundary crossing is loaded with an element of aggression, violation of community standards, or sexuality—the source of the tension that is released in laughter—whereas with empathy proper the boundary is traversed with a respectful acknowledgement and communication of mutual humanity, whether as high spirits, suffering, or community expanding affinity and affection. 

I hasten to add that while the philosopher does not necessarily have a better mastery of empathy than any parent, teacher, doctor, nurse, first responder, therapist, flight attendant, business person with customers, professional with clients, and so on, the philosopher is useful—and at times indispensable—in clarifying distinctions, analyzing concepts, and disentangling misunderstandings about empathy. 

Thus, the fairy tale (Märchen) of Doctor Know-it-all is a perfect place to start a philosophical inquiry into 

Dr Know-it-all pointing in his picture book.
Image credit:
John Thomas Smith / Wellcome V0020405.jpg (Creative Commons Attribution 4.0)

empathy. An uneducated, illiterate, hungry peasant named “Herr Crabb” delivers a load of wood to a doctor.[1] Crabb observes the doctor eating a sumptuous lunch; and Crabb asks him how he (Crabb) might improve his station by becoming a doctor. The doctor tells him to sell his ox and cart and buy an ABC book, buy a fine suit of clothes, and put a sign in front of his hovel that says “Dr Know-it-All.” (Note that the English “Know-it-all” is a translation of the German “allwissend,” which is also the standard translation of the divine attribute “omniscient.”) 

Scene two: thieves steal the treasure from the rich noble lord of the manor on the hill. Dr Know-it-all is called in to consult on the case, solve the crime, and recover the treasure. 

Now getting a good meal is a recurring theme in this story, and Crabb insists on beginning the consulting engagement by coming to dinner. The nobleman, Crabb, and Crabb’s wife, sit down to a fine three-course meal served by the nobleman’s servants. The first servant brings in the first covered dish, and Crabb says, “That is the first.” Likewise with the other two courses: “That is the second” and “That is the third.” 

Now the servants are starting to get worried, because, as is sometimes the case with such crimes, the theft was an inside job, and the servants were ones who did it. “This Crabb guy seems to be onto us,” say the servants to one another between courses. Meanwhile, the nobleman challenges Crabb to say what is under the third covered dish, testing Crabb’s credential as Dr Know-it-all. Of course, Crabb has no idea, and in frustration, he gestures as if to slap himself in the head and says his own name “Oh, Crabb!” Right! The meal is of crab cakes. 

Now the servants are really worried—this guy really does know-it-all. The servants create a pretext to take Crabb aside and confess their theft to him, telling him that they will tell him where the treasure is hidden and even give him an extra fee in addition if only he does not identify them as the culprits. An agreement is reached. Crabb shows the lord where his treasure is hidden, collects ample fees from all sides, does not betray the servants, who, after all, are fellow suffers of social injustice like Crabb himself, resulting in the latter’s becoming rich and famous. By the end of the story, living into a self-fulfilling prophecy, as his performance catches up with his reputation, Crabb does indeed become Dr Know-it-all. 

This is the perfect narrative with which to begin an engagement with a group of philosophers and thinkers who propose answers about the core issues in the study of empathy. One could let one’s scholarly egoism result in a narcissistic injury; but a better response would be self-depreciating humor. The occupational hazard of over-intellectualization looms large whenever philosophers sharpen the cutting edge of their analytic tools. And there is nothing wrong with that as such, but the approach does have its risks and constraints. 

Philosophically speaking, the peasant Herr Crabb, Dr Know-it-all, is the personification of our Socratic ignorance. Socrates’ fame was assured when the Oracle at Delphi—a kind of latter day Wikileaks—proclaimed him as the wisest person in the world, because he acknowledged (i.e., knew) that he did not know.  

Socrates was a commitment to pure inquiry; and that has remained a valid approach to philosophizing in such thinkers as Wittgenstein, Nietzsche, Hume in his skeptical phase, and the Kant of the transcendental dialectic. Nevertheless, the commitment of this review is to provide both questions and answers about empathy, in a Socratic spirit, even if those answers then become the basis for further debate, argument, and inquiry.

Meanwhile, the story of Dr Know-it-all is meant to be told with a totally strait face. Notwithstanding the relatively primitive state of medicine in 1804, one still had to go to the university, even if only the better to understand how the planets influenced disease as in influenza. Nevertheless, it is a depreciating and mocking guidance that the doctor gives in the opening scene to the peasant to sell his ox and get a sign that says “Dr Know-it-all.” The peasant follows the advice.

This is the first empathic encounter in the story. Crabb brings the mind of a beginner to the relationship. In a “once upon a time” moment, this is Crabb’s Socratic ignorance, though of course the story does not use such language. Crabb often seems to be thinking about his next meal, and, in that limited sense, he has a desire—to be well fed like the ruling class. However, in a deeper sense, Crabb is without desire and without memory. That is empathy lesson number one in this story: bring the innocence of a beginner’s mind to one’s relationships. That is the readiness assessment for empathy: be open to possibility, no matter how unlikely or counter-intuitive.

Next, in a series of seeming coincidences, Crabb makes simple, ambiguous statements such as: “That is the first one,” “That is the second one,” and so on. These statements become ambiguous Gestalt figures like the famous duck-rabbit, which spontaneously reverses between one figure and another, depending on one’s perspective. Is it a duck or is it a rabbit? (For an image of the duck-rabbit see Wittgenstein 1951: 194 (or Google it).) Likewise, in the folktale, does the statement refer to the dish of food being served or to the answer to the discussion question, who is the thief? Yes.

This is top-down cognitive empathy; take a walk in the other person’s shoes. The servants employ top down empathy—imagining that they are the consultant(s) brought in to solve the mystery of the missing treasure, taking Crabb’s perspective, putting themselves in his shoes. But their empathy misfires. It doesn’t work. Instead of taking a walk with the other person’s personality—Crabb is after all a poor peasant like the servants (but they do not necessarily know that)—they project their own issue onto Crabb.

Their issue? The servants know who are the thieves and they have one thought too many about it. They have guilty consciences. Though they are hungry peasants in their own way, they identify with the values of the dominant class. When authentic human relatedness misfires, then one gets the psychological mechanism of projection. The thieves guiltily project their knowledge onto Crabb. They imagine that Crabb knows their secret. Here the servants’ empathy is in breakdown. The readers learn about empathy by means of its misfiring, breaking down, going astray, and failing. 

Taking a step back, the fundamental empathic moment is so simple as to be hidden in plain view. Crabb’s empathy tells him what the servants are experiencing. Fear. They are afraid. If Crabb identifies them as the thieves, they will be hanged. The servants actually say that to Crabb in the story. 

Note this is a world circa 1804 in Central Europe, in which there is a different set of rules for judging servants and noblemen. When a nobleman steals, it is called rent, taxation, or user fees. When the servants steal, it is a hanging offense. Theft remains a transgression, so the treasure must be returned. But when the hungry steal to eat, it is arguably a much less serious offense if not an actual entitlement. “Cast not the first stone: go—and sin no more.”

So the story also belongs to a type in which the servant outwits the master, a type of which The Marriage of Figaro is perhaps the most famous example. (See also the narrative approach of Jerzy Kosiński’s Being There, a major motion picture that features Peter Sellers as a naive gardener educated only by watching TV.) In our narrative, integrity is restored at multiple levels. The treasure is returned, the peasant Crabb and his wife acquire the means to eat well going forward, and the servants escape an unfair punishment.

This highly subversive message must be wrappered in humor, so as not to so threaten the prevailing social hierarchy or social injustice of rigid class distinctions with violent revolution. Getting the message out overrides transforming the social order, a perhaps unrealistic expectation in the listening of the folk audience. Crabb’s empathy tells him what the servants are experiencing; his compassion tells him what to do about it—not identify the servants as the perpetrators. I do so like a happy ending, rare though those be.

The case of the young man lacking empathy

The second fairy tale is a kind of thought experiment, a condition contrary to fact. What would be the case if someone completely lacked the capacity for empathy—and how would one acquire such a capacity? 

“The story of the youth who set forth to learn fear” is about a young man who is such a simpleton that he does not even experience fear.[2] It is a long and intricate story. I simplify. The folktale is a ghost story. In the story, as people are telling ghost stories, they say “it made me shudder”—a visceral sensation of “goose bumps” in German the onomatopoeic “grüseln.” This simpleton says: “I wish I knew what that was—shuddering. It sounds interesting, maybe I could make a career out of it.” His poor father is now in despair, thinking, “What am I going to do with this one?” Being charitable, we might say nothing is wrong with this young man, the protagonist in the story, but there is definitely something missing. 

The father is agreeable. He apprentices the youth out to the local sexton to teach him fear. The sexton tries to scare him by dressing up in a sheet as a ghost at midnight, but the sexton breaks his leg when the youth is not scared and fights back. Thus, the youth is exiled, going on an educational journey into the world to learn visceral fear—shuddering. Having no idea what fear is, he volunteers to spend three nights in the haunted castle, from which no visitor has ever, ever returned alive. 

The youth is a simpleton, but one might say, no fool. He takes with him, a knife, a turning lathe with vice grip, and a fire, the three things one is likely to need in case of an emergency. The first night he is confronted by dogs and cats with red-hot chains—the beasts of hell. He uses the knife to dispatch them. The second night he is confronted by fragmentation and dismemberment. Disconnected arms, legs, and heads fall down the chimney, and the zombie-like, quasi-men propose a game of bowling. But the heads, being elliptical, do not roll well. Fearless as usual, he uses the turning lathe to make well-rounded bowling balls, and all enjoy the game. 

All the while, the youth is obsessively complaining: “I wish I knew what was shuddering. I wish I could shudder.” On the third night, pallbearers bring in a coffin with the dead body of his cousin. In a scene that authentically arouses the reader’s shuddering, the youth gets into bed with the corpse to warm it up. He succeeds. The corpse comes alive, and, not behaving in a friendly way, threatens to strangle him. But the youth is as strong as he is simple. He overpowers it. Then the old spirit appears, the old man in a long, white beard appears. They struggle. Though consistently depicted as a simpleton, the youth has a breakthrough in his intelligence. Instead of using the physical strength that has served him up until now, the youth cleverly catches the old one’s beard in the vice grip; and he thrashes him until the latter surrenders. The youth wins, and the old spirit shows the youth the treasure hard-to-attain, one third of which goes to the king, one third to the poor, and he gets to keep one third. He also gets the hand of the princess in marriage. 

However, the youth has still not learned to shudder. Fear not! On the morning after his wedding night, the chambermaid hears of his persisting complaint from his wife. The chambermaid asserts that the problem is easily fixed. She takes the decorative bowl of gold fish in cold water and throws it on him, as he lies in bed still asleep. The little fish flop around. He awakes. He gets it: Goose bumps. “At last I understand shuddering!” 

Fear is perhaps the most primordial and basic emotion. The flight/fight response is a function of the basic biological response of the organism to situations that threaten the integrity of our creaturely existence. The amygdala is activated, adrenalin (norepinephrine) pours into the blood stream, a visceral state of arousal of the body is mobilized that includes increased heart beat, rapid pulse, enhanced startle response, hair standing on end, and a withdrawal of blood from the surface of the skin that results in “goose bumps.” It is a thought experiment similar to riding on a beam of light, going light speed, to imagine a person who does not experience fear in the face of the fearful. Such a thought experiment might not require as much equipment as riding on a beam of light, but, in any case, it is just as rare.

However, no sooner did I pen these words, then I came across a case, in which an individual was identified who did not experience what we would conventionally call “fear.”[3]

As usual, the real world is more complex than one’s thought experiments. It turns out that the individual in question (SM-046) does experience fear in certain situations, but much less so than most “normal” people, so-called “neurotypicals.” The subjective experience of suffocation upon inhaling carbon dioxide in a controlled setting did indeed arouse panic (fear) in her. Panic, fear—close enough? 

A further analysis is required to determine what parts of the interpersonal world—personal space, trust of other people, social skills—are impacted (and by how much) by damage to the amygdala. In no sense is SM “less human”; but there is something missing from her empathic repertoire. This missing capacity for fear seems to diminish her social skills and ability to relate. She does not experience vulnerability in situations that are dangerous or risky when most other people would do so, which could be problematic in avoiding injury due to everyday hazards. In that sense, she may actually resemble the simpleton-hero in the folktale, who is so impervious to what others would experience as fearsome or scary that he naively acts courageously and triumphs in the face of long odds against success. 

SM does not spend three nights in a haunted castle, so her experiences cannot be compared to those of the protagonist in the folktale. Yet, in any case, physiological fear becomes a symbol of empathic, struggling humanity and its quest for self-knowledge. 

The hero-simpleton tries so hard to experience fear that he is effectively defended against his own emotional life. It is ironic that the simpleton is guilty of over-intellectualizing, usually an occupational hazard of philosophers. The youth imagines that someone can tell him in a form of words what is fear as shuddering, visceral goose bumps.

This lack of feeling points to an underlying deficiency in the capability to empathize. Today we might say that this youth is “on the spectrum”—the autistic spectrum—in that he is emotionally isolated and struggles with the reciprocal communication of affect. In short, the youth has an empathy deficit. 

As in all classic folktales, the youth has to go forth on a journey of exploration of both the world and of himself. He becomes a traveller on the road of life, which is the narrative of his emotional misadventures to recover his empathy—and his affective life—and become a complete human being. 

This must be emphasized. The recovery of feelings is the recovery of his humanity. The youth’s journey into the world can be described in many way; but I urge that it is a journey to recover his humanity in the form of experiencing the full range of human emotions in himself and others, the basic paradigm of which is fear and the basic capacity for which is empathy. 

The youth’s recovery of his ability to shudder, his emotions, and his empathy unfold as a running joke. After each increasingly creepy encounter with something most people describe as fearful, he complains, “I wish I could shudder.” This is repeated a dozen times just to make sure the audience gets the point. 

As noted, the folktale, the Märchen, is a ghost story, to be told on dark October nights around Halloween. The empathy of the audience is aroused by increasingly gruesome images of dismembered bodies. The audience definitely shudders, getting the creeps, but not the protagonist. Meanwhile, the audience is taken through the three stages of overcoming over-intellectualization, overcoming resistance to empathy, and recovering his full humanity in a rich emotional life. 

We retell the story, emphasizing the empathic and emotional aspects.

In the first stage of recovering one’s empathy, one must descend into the hell of one’s own lack of integrity and inauthenticities to regain access to and expand one’s humanity. The dogs and cats with red-hot collars and chains are images from hell. The assignment? One has to descend into the hell of one’s empathy breakdowns, misfirings, inauthenticities, blind spots, self-deceptions, and failures, in order to break through the refiner’s fire of self-inquiry with renewed commitment to empathy, relatedness, and community. One must clean up one’s own act, restoring integrity where it is missing in one’s own actions before carrying empathy forward to others; otherwise the attempt to recover and expand empathy is like putting butter cream frosting on a mud pie. It doesn’t work. 

However, even if one cleans up one’s act, acknowledges one’s blind spots and inauthenticities, and commits to empathic relatedness, the risks of failure are significant. That one is committed to relating empathically can leave one vulnerable to the risks of burn out, compassion fatigue, or emotional fragmentation. 

The second night in the castle is filled with images of dismemberment. The youth’s self is vulnerable to fragmentation.

Images of fragmentation: Illustration by Otto Ubbelohde to the fairy tale The Story of the Youth Who Went Forth to Learn What Fear Was (public domain)

None of the dismembered body parts matter to the youth in the way they would matter to an affectively, emotionally whole person. Ghouls and living corpses surround him, but, ontologically speaking, he is the one who is an emotional zombie. Without empathy, the individual is unrelated and isolated—emotionally dead. 

The guidance of the folktale is to be persistent. Set limits with courage and humor. The youth rounds the egg-shaped heads in his turning lathe, the better to play at bowling with the now-rounded heads and the dismembered legs as pins. It works. The youth’s good sense of humor and fellow feeling serve him well in relating empathically to what would otherwise be a harrowing encounter with emotional fragmentation. The integrity of the self is sustained and expanded. Everyone has fun, and the ghouls depart with the body parts at the end of the game. 

On the third night, in a scene that is really quite creepy (and in which the audience, if not the youth, learns shuddering), the coffin of his dead cousin is delivered. The youth gets into bed with the cold corpse of his cousin, charitable lad that he is, in order to warm it up—and, even more uncanny, succeeds in awaking it! 

The emotions are not pleasant that have long lain dormant and “dead” and are brought back to life. The person is at risk of choking on them due to their intensity. Anger and narcissistic rage are the order of the day. The awakened corpse tries to strangle the youth, but the youth overpowers it using physical strength. 

The old spirit, the old man with the long, white beard, shows up for the final struggle. The simpleton youth has a breakthrough in his intelligence. He cleverly catches the old man’s beard in his vice grip and starts wailing on him. 

As noted, the old spirit yields, and, delivers the treasure-hard-to-attain—the hidden gold and the hand of the princess in marriage. But, though the missing empathy ought to have been recovered by now, for rhetorical reasons, the story continues in describing the youth as still complaining about not yet having learned how to shudder. The climax is complete; the dénouement is at hand. 

The individual cannot recover his empathy—or his humanity—on his own. The other is required. A relationship with the other is indispensable. The youth has raised the curse from the haunted castle and won the hand of the fair princess, and he stops trying to shudder. That is key: he finally stops trying. He stops thinking about it—over-intellectualizing. He has a passive overcoming, letting matters be. Then the other teaches him shuddering at the first available opportunity.

The wife’s chambermaid teaches him shuddering in a pun that cleverly masks the physical and sexual innuendo, throwing the cold water and flopping gold fish, causing goose bumps, a visceral experience hard to put into words.

Now the youth is finally a whole, complete human being. The absence of the ability to shudder becomes a symbol for the absence of empathy, the ability to communicate affectively. This youth had no feelings—not even fear. Thus, in this story, in contrast to Dr Know-it-all, we are dealing with bottom up, affective empathy. The absence of the emotion of fear is an extreme paradigm, a negative ideal case, of an absence of the underlying, bottom up capacity for empathy. 

Taking the interpretation up a level, the youth is ontologically cut off from the community, who share emotions empathically. Life is disclosed and matters to members of the community based on their affects and emotions. 

In the narrative, empathy becomes conspicuous by its absence. This absence of empathy is equivalent to the absence of the individual’s humanity. It is only after the youth undertakes a kind of training program in recovering his empathy—and his humanity—by descending into the hell of his own blind spots and inauthenticities that he is able to experience the full range of human emotions—and, ending with a laugh, shuddering.

With the assimilation of these two pre-ontological documents, we turn to the less humorous but equally significant task of defining different methods and approaches to understanding and applying empathy. The philosophy of empathy engages with diverse philosophical methods that provide access to it. 


[1] Anonymous. (1804). Dr Know-it-all, The Complete Grimm’s Fairy Tales, Jacob Grimm, Wilhelm Grimm, eds., trs. Margaret Hunt and James Stern. New York: Pantheon Books, 1972/1994: 456–457; translation modified.

[2] Anonymous. (1804). “The story of the youth who set forth to learn fear,” The Complete Grimm’s Fairy Tales, Jacob Grimm, Wilhelm Grimm, eds., trs. Margaret Hunt and James Stern. New York: Pantheon Books, 1972/1994: 29–38; translation modified. This is a complete reworking of Lou Agosta. (1980). The recovery of feelings in a folktale, Journal of Religion and Health, Vol. 19, No. 4, Winter 1980: 287–297.

[3] See: R. Adolphs, D. Tranel, H. Damasio, A. Damasio. (1994). Impaired recognition of emotion in facial expressions following bilateral damage to the human amygdala, Nature. 372 (6507): 669–72. DOI: 10.1038/372669a0. 

Image credit: Dr Know-it-all: Creative Commons: An old man in a top hat sitting in a wooden cart with wheels Wellcome V0020405.jpg 

Image Credit: Otto Ubbelohde (artist) – Images of fragmentation: Märchen von einem, der auszog das Fürchten zu lernen (Public Domain)

(c) Lou Agosta, PhD and the Chicago Empathy Project

The trouble with the trouble with empathy (this is not a typo)

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.

Empathy breakdowns lead to breakthroughs

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

Empathy and Hermeneutics

Empathy has been given a bad rap in hermeneutic circles by being degraded to a psychological mechanism whereas empathy is rather a way of being in relatedness to individuals and community. Key term: being in relatedness. (For those who may not be tuned into “hermeneutic circles” the short definition is: theory of interpretation. When we open our mouths and speak, a lot of what comes out is interpretation.)

The power of empathy – like that of hermeneutics at large – occurs in cleaning up misunderstandings, breakdowns, and miscommunications. A single diagram on p 35 of Empathy: A Lazy Person’s Guide says it all, reproduced here for your convenience.

Slide1

Enter the hermeneutic circle of empathy and create a breakthrough – success – in relatedness out of the breakdown(s). The empathy lesson is that, when handled with empathy, breakdowns often lead to breakthroughs.

If empathic relatedness misfires in emotional contagion, conformity, projections, or getting lost in translation, then one approach is to abandon empathy and become angry, resigned and cynical. An alternative and better approach would be to expand empathic receptivity, empathic understanding, empathic interpretation, and empathic responsiveness.

For example, if one is experiencing emotional contagion in relating to another person, then one can respond with what I call the favorite indoor sport of academics – over-intellectualization. Go into your head. Nothing wrong with that as such, but it does not expand empathy. A different approach is to take the vicarious experience – the feeling of the feeling of the other – that has been communicated in emotional contagion like an after image of the other’s experience. Use this vicarious experience to be receptive to the other’s experience. Use it as input to understanding what the other person is experiencing.

In another example, empathy can break down in conformity – pressure to conform to social standards or practices that actually empty one’s experience of satisfaction and even be destructive of community. One follows the crowd. One does what “they say.” With apologies to Henry David Thoreau, one leads the life of quiet desperation of the modern mass of men. Instead of promoting conformity – or even a superficial nonconformity – one can use empathic understanding and ask: Who is this other person as a possibility?

If you look at the rules you make up about what is possible in your relationships, then you get the freedom to relate to the rules precisely as possibilities, not absolute “shoulds.” You stop “shoulding” on yourself. You have a breakthrough in what is possible through empathic understanding. Satisfaction in relatedness expands. Relationships become satisfying in ways not previously envisioned. Empathy grows and life is enriched.

So far, this is “bottom up” – so-called affective empathy. Yes, even the empathic understanding is understanding of the possibilities in which we live. Strictly speaking, that is not affective, but neither is it cognitive. It is precognitive. However, when I truly get stuck in trying to understand the other individual and her situation, then I make use of “top down” empathy. This is the folk aspect of empathy: I take a walk in their shoes. I think about – try to grasp in fundamental thinking – what it may be like being in their predicament. I “jump start” my relatedness through 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.

Without empathic responsiveness, 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.

Many additional examples of empathy successes and empathy breakdowns are available in the light-hearted look at the subject: Empathy: A Lazy Person’s Guide, including some twenty-eight full color illustrations by that celebrated artist Alex Zonis. If you only read one non-academic book on empathy, this is the one. Check it out here: Empathy: A Lazy Person’s Guide.

(c) Lou Agosta and the Chicago Empathy Project

See Lou Agosta’s other books on empathy – academic and popular here: https://tinyurl.com/y8mof57f