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Resistance to Empathy and How to Overcome it (Part 2): Individual Provider and Receiver (of Empathy)
Empathy is trending. As we engage with provider empathy, the pendulum has swung far enough for a backlash against empathy to be emerging.
Empathy with negative emotions and suffering is difficult. From a purely selfish perspective, empathic data gathering about the negative experiences endured and survived by other persons can be, well, negative. Negative experiences such as loss, hostility, intense rage, sexual danger, sadness, sleep deprivation, fear, and so on, are not welcome by anyone even as a less intense vicarious experiences. One fears getting the full-blown experience, not merely vicariously experiencing a sample or trace. The would-be empathizer is at risk of being overwhelmed, inundated, or flooded by emotional upset. The person’s empathy is on the slippery slope of empathic distress; and the empathy is at risk of breakdown.
The language is telling. If one is hit by a tidal wave, then one is going to be “under water.” Kick your feet, make swimming motions with the arms, and rise to the surface to try to catch your breath. While an empathic response is easier said than done, expressing the suffering of the survivor in a simple and factually accurate statement can open the way to containing the suffering and getting unstuck. Dial down empathic receptivity and dial up empathic interpretation and understanding.
People committed to providing empathy to other people resist their own commitment to empathy for several reasons. As soon as a person makes a commitment—in this case, a commitment to practice empathy—then all the reasons why the commitment is a bad idea, unworkable, unreasonable, or just plain absurd, show up. There is no time. It is too expensive. No one is interested. What seemed like a good idea yesterday, now seems a lot more challenging and like a lot more work. Yet empathy is never needed more than when it seems there is no possibility of it.
The would-be empathizer is vulnerable to a vicarious experience of the other person’s suffering. Indeed if one’s empathic data filter is not granular enough, one is at risk of being inundated by emotional contagion. This does not mean that the provider of empathy has to be a masochist, stuck on suffering. However, it does mean being vulnerable to a sample of the suffering. It does mean opening oneself up to a sample of the other person’s upsetting experience. It does mean being receptive to that which the other finds so upsetting, but doing so in a regulated and limited way. Hence, the need for training.
The training consists in interrupting and accepting one’s own feelings and letting them be. Practice is required in order to increase one’s tolerance and learn to be with uncomfortable feelings.
One key to forming a humane relationship with anyone who is upset: Vicariously getting a taste of the upset, experiencing vicariously the other’s fear or anger. Acknowledge the experience as valid. Accept the experience, not as good or fair, but as what one has indeed experienced.
One celebrity academic claims that in empathy the better part of emotion is reducible to emotional contagion. What the world needs to practice is not empathy, but rational compassion. As if one had to choose between the two! The world needs expanded empathy and more compassion of all kinds.[i]
A vicarious experience is essential data as to what the other person is experiencing; but if one is distressed to the point of upset by the other’s upset, then one is not going to be able to make a difference. Paradoxically one is not going to be able to experience one’s experience due to being distracted by one’s own upset. One’s empathy has misfired, gone off the rails, failed.
Empathy is in breakdown. One has to regroup. Take a time out. Acknowledge that one is human. One does not always get it right, but that does not mean that one is less committed to empathy or helping the other. It is worth repeating that the empathizer may expect to suffer, but not too much—just a little bit.
The good news is that empathy, when properly implemented, serves as an antidote to burnout or “compassion fatigue.” Note the language here. Unregulated empathy supposedly results in “compassion fatigue.” However, this work has repeatedly distinguished empathy from compassion.
Could it be that when one tries to be empathic and experiences compassion fatigue, then one is actually being compassionate instead of empathic? Consider the possibility. The language is a clue. Strictly speaking, one’s empathy is in breakdown. Instead of being empathic, one is being compassionate, and, in this case, the result is compassion fatigue without the quotation marks. It is no accident that the word “compassion” occurs in “compassion fatigue,” which is a nuance rarely noted by the advocates of “rational compassion.”
No one is saying, do not be compassionate. Compassion has its time and place—as does empathy. We may usefully work to expand both; but we are saying do not confuse the two. Empathy is a method of data gathering about the experiences of the other person; compassion tells one what to do about it, based on one’s ethics and values.
Most providers of empathy find that with a modest amount of training, they can adjust their empathic receptivity up or down to maintain their own emotional equilibrium. In the face of a series of sequential samples of suffering, the empathic person is able to maintain his emotional equilibrium thanks to a properly adjusted empathic receptivity. No one is saying that the other’s suffering or pain should be minimized in any way or invalidated. One is saying that, with practice, regulating empathy becomes a best practice.
However, the good news is sometimes also the less good news.
The other person’s suffering reminds one of one’s own suffering.
The other person’s anger reminds one of one’s own anger.
The other’s failures evoke one’s own setbacks.
The other’s self-defeating behavior is plainly evident to any third party, but one’s own self-defeating behavior seems to continue with regularity in tripping up oneself.
Rarely does a person say, “I want to be empathic in order to confront my own personal demons.” Rarely does one say it, but that is what is needed. That is the work of expanding one’s empathy. As in the fairy tale, one must spend three nights in the haunted castle, fighting the ghosts of one’s past and confronting the illusive specter of one’s blind spots.
Anxiety, depression, fragmentation, and the dehumanization dwelling in the dark side of human nature loom large before discovering the buried treasure of one’s own emotional resources in the face of upsets.
The thinking and practices that created empathy breakdowns are insufficient to overcome them. The thinking and practices that created resistances to empathy are insufficient to transform them. To get one’s power back in the face of resistance to empathy, something extra is required.
Expanding one’s empathy in the face of one’s own resistance to empathy requires something extra. Expanding empathy requires expanding authenticity, so the person who would practice empathy has to confront and clean up his own emotional contagion, conformity, projection, egocentrism, devaluing judgments and opinions, and the tendency of communications to get lost in translation. This clean up requires acting to repair disruptions in relatedness and repairing misunderstandings and miscommunications with other people by acknowledging one’s own contribution to the breakdown. It requires picking up the phone or requesting a meeting. It requires showing up, engaging, and acknowledging how one acted to cause the upset or breakdown.
Instead of emotional contagion, conformity, projection, and mistranslation, one enters the empathic cycle, engaging with openness towards the other person in receptivity, understanding of possibilities, taking ownership of one’s meaning making so that the other person is left free to be self-expressed, and responding in such a way that the other person is left whole and complete.
This means accepting the consequences of one’s deeds and mis-deeds. That is the first step—and every step—in recovering one’s power in relation to empathy. One might not get what one wants. However, what one is going to get is unstuck—and the freedom to be empathic in relationships going forward.
Everyone wants to get empathy, don’t they? Speaking of a recipient’s resistance to empathy sounds like resisting rainbows and colored balloons. What’s not to like? Empathy is what everyone really wants, isn’t it? Well, not always. Resistance to empathy—that it exists—is the basic empathy lesson of this chapter.
Emotional closeness leaves a person vulnerable to disappointment. The would-be recipient of empathy is ambivalent and vulnerable about being intimate with the other person, inhibiting the recipient’s empathic relatedness. The result is resistance to empathy.
People want approval from other people. People want approval for their opinions and behavior. People want agreement. Life is definitely easier, at least in the short run, if one is surrounded by people who agree with one rather than disagree.
People especially want agreement when they have something to be disagreeable about. They want agreement when they have a complaint. However, empathy does not lead off with approval and agreement.
Empathy leads off by being quiet and listening. In the face of chronic complaints and self-defeating behavior, being empathic often takes an open and inquiring stance that the other person may usefully take a look at any responsibility or potential blind spots he may be holding onto as the source of the complaint. It seems like “mission impossible,” since the blind spot is precisely that which, by definition, one does not know and that to which one can get access only through sustained self-inquiry. Doing the hard work of undertaking an inquiry into one’s own issues is, well, hard work. That results in resistance to empathy.
Resistant or not, people want to be understood. People want to be gotten for who they authentically are. People want other people to know how they have struggled to succeed and overcome adversity.
Yet, in hoping to be understood for who they really are, people are asking, not so much for agreement as for empathy.
People assert that they want to be understood; yet they do not want to be understood too well.
People do not want to take too close a look at how they have contributed to their own struggle and effort. People do not want to face directly how they have contributed in self-defeating ways to their own frustration and stuckness about which they so loudly complain.
People want the recognition of their humanity that comes with empathy; but not the unmasking of their own blind spots, which requires getting out of their comfort zone.
Let’s face it. People can be difficult. People are disagreeable. People are contrary. People are ornery. People are rude and discourteous. People push and shove. People often forget to honor their agreements. People lie. People are overly aggressive. People are overly sexed. People are under-sexed. People smell bad. Is it any wonder that people do not want to get close to other people? Is it any surprise that people develop resistance to being empathic towards other people?
This is a case of you can’t live with them and you can’t live without them. People, that is. Yet there is no such thing as a person in isolation. A person by himself is not a survivable entity. That is true of newborn babies. That is true of children of tender age, who require years of guidance and education. Likewise, that is true of adults, though in more nuanced ways.
The “I” is a part of the “we,” and the “we” a part of the “I”
Early prehistoric humans needed a companion to tend the campfire and stand guard against predators (or hostile neighbors) while the other(s) rested. The basic male and female pair was an inseparable requirement for procreative success.
Propagating the species to build a community against the ravages of infant mortality was a priority requiring skills to cooperate with one another socially. For most of recorded history (and before) children were the equivalent of a pension plan for aging parents; and in many parts of the world today that continues to be the case.
Domination and control of individuals in community based on physical strength and violence coexisted alongside (and contended against) forms of cooperation, leadership, and community-building based on the skillful use of language and symbols to exercise power based on motivation, persuasion, inspiration, inclusion, and enlightened self-interest.
The point is not to tell a “just so” story about the origins of civilization, but rather to acknowledge that, not only is the individual a part of the community, the community is also a part of the individual. This bears repeating. The “I” does not only belong to the “we”; but the “we” is a part of the “I.” We carry within ourselves a readiness for community, a readiness for relatedness, a sense of inclusion in community; and if there is no one else to talk to, we talk to ourselves.
The empathy lesson? Empathy is the foundation of relatedness, and resistance to empathy is resistance to relatedness. People are born into “relatedness.” Empathy is about participation with others. Empathy is about relatedness with other people and who these others authentically are in their strengths and weaknesses, in their possibilities and limitations. Even when a person is a hermit, all alone, he is alone in such a way that his aloneness depends on the basic condition of his being a creature designed for relatedness. Being unrelated is a privative form of relatedness; and being alone is a deficient form of relatedness. Paradoxically, nonrelatedness becomes a way of relating for some.
Given that resistance to empathy on the part of the would-be recipient of empathy is pervasive, what is the recommendation? Ask yourself: What is coming between myself and the other person who is offering empathy? Perhaps fear of being misunderstood is a factor. Fear of being let down is another factor. Fear of being vulnerable gets in the way. Fear of disappointment is a consideration.
What do all these factors have in common? Fear. Fear is front and center. However, there is something else further back behind the fear. Less obvious but highly significant. What would a person have to give up in order to be receptive to the gracious and generous listening being offered? Behind the fear is attachment—attachment to suffering.
Suffering is sticky
For people who are survivors, whether of the college of hard knocks or significant trauma, allowing themselves to experience another’s empathy takes something extra. Many people who fall short of a clinical label of “post traumatic stress disorder” (PTSD) have an area in their lives in which they are engaged with their suffering in an intimate way. You know the saying: “Keep your friends close, but your enemies even closer”? So it is also with suffering. In order to survive suffering, many people have decided to keep it close to them. They are attached to it. Overly attached? One thing is for sure. Suffering is sticky.[ii] Letting go of the suffering through the soothing experience of empathy seems like a risky proposition to people who feel fragile and vulnerable.
Consider PTSD. (We define our terms.) In an attempt to master the consequences of the life threatening experience of trauma, the organism (the human mind/body) keeps the fear, anxiety, and pain split off from being experienced as one’s own. Yes, one was present when the assault happened, the violence was perpetrated, or the train wreck occurred.
Yet in another sense, one was not present. One was not there, at least not as a conscious being. In being overwhelmed in the moment, one immediately took oneself out of the experience as an immediate reaction and survival mechanism. The traumatic experience remains unintegrated with one’s other life experiences, spinning in a tight circle of repetition.
The circle of repetition is split off from the person’s awareness and everyday life, remaining isolated—“sequestered” is the technical term for it.[iii] Suffering lives. The pain is real. Suffering itself becomes a kind of “comfort zone,” but only in the limited sense that it is isolated and separated from the awareness of the person trying to live his life.
This in no way diminishes the struggle or suffering of the survivor. Yet letting go of the suffering through the soothing balm of empathy shows up like a risky encounter with the unknown. For most people, the unknown itself is fear inspiring. The unknown is as fear inspiring as the suffering itself.
One keeps coming back to the suffering in the hope that it might be magically shifted. One keeps coming back to it like an exposed nerve in a toothache. Yes, it still hurts—ouch! The suffering starts to dominate one’s whole life, and one builds one’s life around the suffering, trying to manage and contain the uncontainable. One says, “I know my own dear little suffering up close, and it is a comfort to me in its own way—it gives me all these secondary gains—even though the impact and cost is staggering in the long term—yet I cannot let it go.”
We cycle back to empathy and its many dimensions in the context of suffering as an uncomfortable comfort zone.
How to be empathically responsive to the struggling individual and his “dear little suffering” requires an empathic listening of remarkable finesse and timeliness.
Empathy can help people get out of their comfort zone, in this case a place of suffering, in a safe and liberating way. When empathy gets an opening, empathy shrinks the trauma the way interferon is supposed to shrink tumors. Empathy sooths the accompanying suffering and reduces the stress.
The survivor is able to let go of the attachment to suffering, and engage with new possibilities. No guarantee exists that the outcome of the new possibilities will be favorable; many risks await; but the individual is no longer stuck.
In summary, we have engaged with resistance to empathy from three perspectives. We have explored overcoming resistance to empathy in the organization, in the individual providing empathy, and in the individual receiving empathy. In each case the empathy training consists in driving out obstacles to empathy, reducing or eliminating the resistance, so empathy can spontaneously grow and develop.
The organization drives out empathy by enforcing conformity to an extensive and contradictory set of rules, whose complexity is such that at any give time, the individual is technically (though unwittingly) in violation of one of them.
Speaking truth to power can be hazardous to one’s career; and humor is closely related to empathy; so humor becomes a powerful way of regulating empathy, expanding and contracting empathy in such challenging organizational contexts. Humor is a powerful tool against the arrogance of authoritarian domination. Both empathy and humor require crossing the boundary between self and other with integrity and respect, but humor offers additional opportunities for questioning the status quo, speaking truth to power, and creating the stress, suddenly relaxed by laughter, caused by expressing what’s so.
Empathy has a key role to play in organizations in reducing conflict, overcoming “stuckness,” eliminating self-defeating behavior, building teams, fostering innovation, developing leadership, and enhancing productivity. The empathy lesson is to use humor (and empathy) to undercut resistance to empathy in the organization. The lesson is that empathy is a source of creating possibilities, overcoming conformity through innovation, and leading from a future of possibilities.
Resistance to empathy on the part of those who provide empathy shows up as “compassion fatigue” and burnout. The word is a clue: compassion, not empathy, causes “compassion fatigue.” So much compassion, so little empathy. I hasten to repeat that the world needs both more compassion and more empathy. Peer group dynamics, collegial support, and self-care are required to recharge the emotional resources of those routinely providing empathy to others.
Regular self-care, including exercise, nutrition, quality time with family/friends, is on the critical path to survival and flourishing, managing the risk of experiencing empathic distress.
This makes the case for self-care and self-monitoring on the part of professionals of all kinds and first responders in health care, education, sales, leadership, public safety, customer service, and so on, whose empathy is a significant part of their role. Professionals take breaks and are on top of their empathy game; amateurs try to be empathic all the time (whatever that would mean), experience empathic distress, make it mean they lack empathy, and quit. Those who do not take care of themselves, then blaming empathy when they get burned out, are committing a kind of malpractice of empathic engagement (in the literal, not pejorative sense of the word). Like a helicopter, empathy is powerful and complex, so it requires regularly scheduled maintenance lest something go wrong at an inconvenient time.
For those individuals who want empathy or think that they want empathy, but then change their minds, resistance to empathy confronts readiness for empathy. Some people simply would rather not be understood. For them, being understood has resulted in bad outcomes. They have been manipulated, used, even abused.
In such cases, the would-be empathizer has to “dial down” empathic receptivity, in which the communication of affect looms large, and “tune up” empathic interpretation, in which one cognitively processes what it might be like to take the other’s point of view. Once a person feels safe, the person will be willing to risk exposing and exploring the vulnerabilities that got the person stuck in the first place and need working through to get the person moving again into a flourishing future of possibilities.
In conclusion, empathy is supposed to be like motherhood, apple pie, and puppies. What’s not to like? A lot. People can be difficult—very difficult—why should empathizing with them be easy? Yet most of the things that are cited as reasons for criticizing and dismissing empathy—emotional contagion, projection, misinterpretation, gossip, messages lost in translation and devaluing language—are actually breakdowns of empathy. With practice and training, one’s empathy expands to shift breakdowns in empathy to breakthroughs in understanding, possibilities of flourishing, enhanced humanity, relatedness, and building community.
[i] Empathy is now a major publishing event. There is a wave of books on empathy—popular, scientific, political, and scholarly. For example, Frans de Waal’s The Age of Empathy explores empathy between humans and higher animals; J.D. Trout’s The Empathy Gap considers empathy and social justice from the perspective of Ignatian Humanism; Jeremy Rifkin’s The Empathic Civilization, 800 pages long in hardcover (don’t drop it on your foot!) channels Teilhard de Chardin’s idea of a global consciousness, now including the politics of empathy; Jean Decety’s Social Neuroscience establishes correlations between sensations, affects, and emotions using functional magnetic resonance imaging technology (fMRI) as a kind of x-ray for the soul, exploring the relation between empathy and psychopathy (with his colleague Kent Kiehl); Simon Baron-Cohen’s Zero Degrees of Empathy considers the role of empathy in cruelty and disorders of empathy such as psychopathy and autism. Thomas Farrow’s (ed.) Empathy in Mental Illness drills down scientifically on the disorders of empathy in all their profound differences. See also: Susan Lanzoni, Empathy: A History (Yale 2018); any collectioin on social neuroscience by Jean Decety; William R.Miller, Listening Well: The Art of Empathic Understanding (WIPF and Stock, 2018); Cris Beam, I feel You: The Surprising Power of Extreme Empathy (Houghton Mifflin, 2018); Jodi Halpern, From Detached Concern to Empathy: Humanizing Medical Practice, (Oxford, 2001); David Howe, Empathy: What It Is and Why It Matters (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013); Leslie Jamisom, The Empathy Exams (Essays) (Graywolf, 2014); Thomas Kohut, Empathy and the Historical Understanding of the Human Past (Routledge 2021).
[ii] I discuss this proposition in detail in Lou Agosta. (2015). A Rumor of Empathy: Resistance, Narrative Recovery in Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy. London: Routledge (Taylor and Francis): 53, 55, 117, 190.
[iii] Bessel van der Kolk. (2014). The Body Keeps the Score: Mind, Brain and Body in the Transformation of Trauma. New York: Penguin Books.
Empathy flourishes in a space of acceptance and tolerance. But acceptance and tolerance have their dark side, too. People can be intolerant and unaccepting. Be accepting of what? Be accepting of intolerance? Be tolerant of intolerance? Yes, be tolerant, but set limits. But how to do that given that we may still have free speech in the USA, but many people have just stopped listening.
“The Trouble With Empathy” is an article by Molly Worthen published in The New York Times on September 04, 2020. The author gets many things just right in an impressive engagement with the complexities of empathy, but in other areas, including the citations of certain academics, I have an alternative point of view. Hence, the trouble with the trouble with empathy is not a typo. The reply is summarized in the diagram (note that it is labeled “Figure 2,” but it is the only diagram – page down, please). For those interested in more detail, read on.
Babies are not born knowing the names of the color spectrum. Children are taught these names and how to use them in (pre)Kindergarten; likewise, with the names of the emotions such as sadness, fear, anger, and high spirits. However, there is a lot more to empathy than naming one’s feelings and getting in touch with our mammalian ability to resonate with one another in empathic receptivity and understanding.
As an adult, the fact that you failed to be empathic does not mean that your commitment to empathy is any less strong; just that you did not succeed this time; and you need to keep trying. Stay the course. It takes practice. The practice is precisely the empathy training.
Often understanding emerges out of misunderstanding. My description of the other person’s experience as they lived it is clumsy and creates a misunderstanding. But when the misunderstanding is clarified and cleaned up, then empathy occurs. Thus, break throughs in empathy emerge out of breakdowns. So whenever a breakdown in empathy shows up, do not be discouraged, but rather be glad, for a break through is near.
Evidence from the past rarely demonstrates what innovations are possible in the future. Just because people are not born with wings does not mean people cannot fly. If the Wright Brothers had accepted the evidence, we would all still be taking the train. I hasten to add there is nothing wrong with taking the train. People can be intolerant, and I too am people. Work on oneself is constantly needed.
I open my mouth to be empathic and respond empathically—but instead of an empathic response, out jumps a frog: “I feel your pain.” What a fake! If I really felt your pain, then I would say “Ouch!” not “I feel your pain.” I find that I do frequently say “Ouch!” Or just shake my head and provide acknowledgement and recognition: “You’ve really been dealing with some tough stuff.” “Sounds like use could use some empathy.”
The point is not to devalue the attempted empathic response, clumsy though it may be. The point is to acknowledge that the lazy person expands his empathy in a practice filled with examples of not getting it quite right. If empathy were a sport, it would be filled with strikeouts, fumbles, off sides, failures, and incomplete plays. There would even perhaps be examples of “unsportsman-like conduct.”
Each of the four phases of empathy has characteristic breakdowns. This is not new news. The news is that if engaged with a rigorous and critical empathy, these breakdowns readily become breakthroughs in empathy.
Breakthroughs in empathy arise from working through the breakdowns of empathy. The Big Four breakdowns of empathy are noted: emotional contagion, conformity, projection, and getting lost in translation. These are not the only breakdowns of empathy, which are many and diverse, but these are the most frequent ones.
In the example of emotional contagion, one anxious person is telling the other person about all the reasons in the world that he is feeling out of sorts. Pretty soon, the person who is listening is starting to feel anxious too. The person’s receptivity—openness and availability—to the other individual’s emotions is working overtime and his empathic receptivity misfires, becoming: Emotional contagion. Emotional infection strikes again!
Often it is not so obvious. Often people are caught up in the emotion of the moment. The emotion itself is so powerful that it just sweeps over everyone present like a tidal wave—an emotional tsunami. The person is flooded—emotionally.
If the listener realizes that listening to anxiety-inspiring stories causes his own anxiety to spike, then that is already going beyond emotional contagion and the start of an empathic processing of the emotion.
If one stops in the analysis of empathy with the mere communication of feelings, then empathy collapses into emotional contagion. Empathic receptivity breaks down into emotional contagion, suggestibility, being over-stimulated by the inbound flood of the other person’s strong feelings.
Emotional contagion—basically the communication of emotions, feelings, affects, and experiences—can be redescribed as input to further down stream empathic processing. Then emotional contagion (communicability of affect) gets “normalized” and can very well make a contribution to empathic understanding.
Overcoming the breakdown of empathy into emotional contagion results in the breakthrough to vicarious experience. A vicarious experience is what a person has in going to the theatre, the movies, or a single-person player video game. I experience the fears and hopes of the character in the film, but I do so vicariously. Theatre, film, and the novel were “virtual reality” (VR) long before computers, special VR goggles, and social networking were invented.
Vicarious experience is not empathy. It is input to the process of empathy. Vicarious experience is the grain of truth in the fake-sounding empathy meme, “I feel your pain.” I feel your pain—vicariously. I experience an after-image of your pain—like the visual after-image of the American flag that results from starring at a vivid depiction of the off-color image of the stars and stripes. I repeat: we gat an after-image of another person’s feelings and emotions.
I am amazed that no one has as yet explicitly pointed out that we get after-images of other people’s feelings when we are exposed to those feelings for a sustained duration. A vicarious experience of emotion differs from emotional contagion in that one explicitly recognizes and knows that the other person is the source of the emotion.
You feel anxious or sad or high spirits, because you are with another person who is having such an experience. You “pick it up” from him. You can then process the vicarious experience, unpacking it for what is so and what is possible in the relationship. This returns empathy to the positive path of empathic understanding, enabling a breakthrough in “getting” what the other person is experiencing. Then you can contribute to the other person regulating and mastering the experience by being there for him and responding with soothing words and acknowledgement of the situation.
The next breakdown of empathy is settling for conformity instead of striving for possibility. We might also say: settling for agreement instead of striving for possibility.
People live and flourish in possibilities. Empathic understanding breaks down as “no possibility,” “stuckness,” and the suffering of “no exit” (the definition of Hell in a famous play of the same name by Jean Paul Sartre). You follow the crowd in responding to the other person; you do what “one does”; you validate feelings and attitudes according to what “they say”; you conform and express agreement; and, with apologies to Henry David Thoreau, you live the life of quiet desperation of the “modern mass of men.”
When someone is stuck, experiencing shame, guilt, rage, upset, emotional disequilibrium, and so on, the person is fooling himself—has a blind spot—about what is possible. This does not mean that it is easy to be in the person’s situation or for the person to see what is missing. Far from it. We live in possibilities that we allow to define our constraints and limitations—for example, see the example of the friend who was married and divorced three times. This expresses a strong commitment to marriage, though empathy and husbanding skills are seemingly limited.
If you acknowledge that the things that get in the way of your relatedness are the very rules you make up about what is possible in your relationships, then you get the freedom to relate to the rules and possibilities precisely as possibilities, not absolute “shoulds.” You stop “shoulding” on yourself. This brings us to the next break down—the break down in empathic interpretation.
Taking a walk in the other person’s shoes—the folk definition of empathy—breaks down if you take that walk using an inaccurate shoe size. You then know where your shoe pinches, not hers. This is also called “projection.” The recommendation?
Take back the projections of your own inner conflicts onto other people. Take back your projections. Own them. You get your power back along with your projections. Stop making up meaning about what is going on with the other person; or, since you probably cannot stop making up meaning, at least distinguish the meaning—split it off, quarantine it, take distance from it, so that its influence is limited.
Having worked through your vicarious experiences, worked through possibilities for overcoming conformity and stuckness, and taken back your projections, you are ready to engage in communicating to the other person your sense of the other individual’s experience. You are going to try to say to the other what you got from what they told you, describing back to the other your sense of their experience. And what happens? Sometimes it works; sometimes you “get it” and the other “gets” that you “get it”; but other times the description gets “lost in translation.”
This breakdown of empathic responsiveness occurs within language. You fail to express yourself satisfactorily. I believed that I empathized perfectly with the other person’s struggle, but my description of her experience failed significantly to communicate to the other person what I got from listening to her.
My empathy remains a tree in the forest that falls without anyone being there. My empathy remains silent, inarticulate, and uncommunicative. I get credit for a nice empathic try; but the relatedness between the persons is not an empathic one. If the other person is willing, then go back to the start and try again. Iterate. Learn from one’s mistakes and incomplete gestures.
The fact that you failed does not mean that your commitment to empathy is any less strong; just that you did not succeed this time; and you need to keep trying. Stay the course. It takes practice. The practice is precisely the empathy training.
Often understanding emerges out of misunderstanding. My description of the other person’s experience as they lived it is clumsy and creates a misunderstanding. But when the misunderstanding is clarified and cleaned up, then empathy occurs. As that notorious bad boy of a certain 18th century enlightenment, Voltaire, is supposed to have said: Let not perfection be the enemy of the good. Thus, break throughs in empathy emerge out of breakdowns. So whenever a breakdown in empathy shows up, do not be discouraged, but rather be glad, for a break through is near.
Knowing Professor Worthen’s [the author of the NYT article that provoked this reply] interest in religious studies, I conclude with a reflection on empathy and the Good Samaritan. The Parable of the Good Samaritan speaks volumes (Luke 10: 25–37). The first two people, who passed by the survivor by crossing the road, experienced empathic distress. They were prevented from helping out by a breakdown of their empathic receptivity. They were overwhelmed by the suffering and crossed the road. In contrast, the Good Samaritan had a vicarious experience of the suffering. His empathic receptivity gave him access to the survivor’s pain. His empathy told him what the other person was experiencing and his compassion told him what to do about it.
To get Lou’s light-hearted look at the topic, Empathy: A Lazy Person’s Guide or one of his peer-reviewed publications see: Lou Agosta’s publications: https://tinyurl.com/y8mof57f
(c) Lou Agosta, PhD and the Chicago Empathy Project
People treat empathy as if it were an “on-off” switch.
Turn it “on” for friends and family; turn it “off” for the “bad guys”. Turn empathy “on” for coworkers, customers, and insiders; turn empathy “off” for competitors, for compliance, and for efficiency and speed. Turn empathy on for the hometown baseball team, the Cubs or Sox, if you are from Chicago like I am or turn it off for
the competition, especially New York teams such as the Mets or Yankees! If you have encountered die-hard fans, then you know that I am only partially joking. However, in business today—as in sports and as in dating with prospective romantic partners—you are competing in the morning and cooperating in the afternoon. Unfortunately, the switch tends to get stuck in the off position.
The guidance? Empathy is a tuner or dial, not an “on-off” switch. Engaging with the issues and sufferings with which people are struggling can leave the would-be empathizer (“empath”) vulnerable and exposed to burnout and “compassion fatigue.” As noted, the risk of compassion fatigue is a clue that empathy is distinct from compassion, and if one is suffering from compassion fatigue, then one’s would-be practice of empathy is off the rails, in breakdown.
Instead of practicing empathy, maybe you are being too compassionate. If you are flooded, maybe—just maybe—you are doing it wrong. In empathy, the listener gets a vicarious experience of the other’s issue or experience, including their suffering. The listener suffers vicariously, but without being flooded and overwhelmed by the other’s experience.
This is not to say that some accounts of trauma would not overwhelm and flood anyone. They would. They do. However, we are here engaging with the example of a committed listener who spends his or her day listening to a series of depressed, anxious, or otherwise upset people.
Empathy is like a dial, lever, or tuner—turn it up or turn it down. If one is overwhelmed by suffering as one listens to the other person’s struggles, one is doing it—practicing empathy—incorrectly, clumsily, and one needs expanded skill training in empathy.
The whole point of a vicarious experience—as distinct from merger or over-identification—is to get a sample or trace of the other’s experience without being inundated by it. Key term: sample the other’s experience. One needs to increase the granularity of one’s empathic receptivity to reduce the emotional or experiential “load.”
Another way of saying the same thing? Empathy is a filter—decrease the granularity and get more of the other’s experience or increase the granularity (i.e., close the pores) and get less.
The empathic professional can expect to have a vicarious experience of the other person’s experience. If the other person is suffering, then he will have a vicarious experience of suffering. He will have a sample of the other person’s suffering. He will have a trace affect of the sadness or grief or anger or fear (and so on) of whatever is a burden to the other person. It will be a toe or an ankle in the water instead of being up to the neck in it. The experience will just be a taste of brine rather than drowning.
The power in distinguishing between empathic receptivity and empathic understanding, empathic interpretation, and empathic responsiveness, is precisely so you can divide and conquer the practice and performance of empathy.
If your “empathic distress” indicates too much openness, do not be “closed off,” but tactically reduce the openness. Increasing the granularity of your empathic receptivity reduces the empathic receptivity and reduces your empathy as a whole. If you are experiencing compassion fatigue, then you need to tune down your compassion and expand your empathy. If you are experiencing burnout, then it is likely that emotional contagion is leading to empathic distress. In this case, you need to tune down one’s empathy.
Interested in more best practices in empathy? Order your copy of Empathy Lessons, the book. Click here.
(c) Lou Agosta PhD and the Chicago Empathy Project