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Empathy, Authenticity, & Shame

A Connection Gem reader writes:  "I want to be sure people don't feel ashamed about the vulnerability of hearing the empathy guess, even when there is just the two of us and my language is very natural."

When you offer empathy you invite another to open more into authenticity.  If the elements of trust, safety, and self-acceptance are strongly in place this opening into a deeper sense of connection with self and another feels like coming home.  There is a sense of expansiveness, fluidity, and solidness all at once.

But, like our Connection Gem reader quoted above, you might have noticed that it doesn't always happen this way.  At times when you offer empathy you see a flicker of this "home coming" in the other and then suddenly s/he  withdraws, changes the subject, or begins a rant of self-criticism.  Usually a sense of hurt and fear are behind this sudden pulling away.  While all of this happens in a few seconds, the steps in this pattern can be named with mindfulness of the experience.  Seen in slow motion here is what is usually happening:

  • As you offer empathy and it resonates for the other person, she or he has the experience of being seen and experiencing her/himself authentically, which feels good.  

  • Unfortunately, the experience of showing up in the world authentically is linked to previous experiences of hurt, pain, and rejection.

  • The memory of this hurt (usually unconscious) then triggers a practiced reactive pattern.  This reactive pattern includes at least the following major elements:

    • Shame or Anger (both effectively shut down the experience of the original hurt and the movement to come forward authentically).

    • Core limiting beliefs are activated and begin informing thoughts and decisions (beliefs like:  "I will get rejected if I am authentic.", "I don't have a right to my feelings and needs.", "I should be tough and just move on." "I'm worthless.", etc.)

    • The impulse arises to move away from authenticity and the possibility of hurt through  habitual strategies - which are numerous.  A few include:  withdraw, getting tough, being charming, getting analytical, taking charge of things, acting out dramatically, and focusing on work.

When someone says, "I feel vulnerable" it typically means that s/he is just on the edge between maintaining authentic self connection and tumbling into the reactive pattern described above.

Offering empathy isn't about trying to keep someone from feeling ashamed or trying to keep them self-connected.  It may seem like a fine line sometimes between holding your intention to contribute and trying to change someone's experience.  Empathy is about a willingness to be with someone in whatever experience he or she is having.  Sometimes that means making verbal guesses and sometimes that means silent compassionate presence.

As a compassionate person who wants to contribute to the well-being of others without trying to control their experience there are two main things to keep in mind:

Mindfulness:  Mindfully track the other person and make verbal and behavioral guesses about what would be a contribution and then ask or notice if your attempt contributed or not.  

Humility:  For myself, what I have found most useful in effectively contributing to others is remaining humble.  I remind myself that human beings and the workings of this life are infinitely subtle and complex.  Not only do I not have the right answer, there is none.  We only have this experience constantly unfolding moment to moment.


This week practice with the next time you notice someone who is in a moment of suffering.  Before you offer anything take a centering breath and relax your body.  Just be with him or her for a moment.  Then let your wisdom and compassion guide you into a guess about what contribution would look like in that moment.

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