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Is Empathy Enough?

You have received empathy for a familiar bit of reactivity that comes up for you.  You have a sense that you really connect with and understand the underlying feelings and needs.  Yet, it still comes up again and again.  What's happening?

Some reactive patterns are old and practiced.  They are habits of heart, body, and mind.  You don't want them to arise, but it doesn't seem to take much for reactivity to be up and running.  For example, one minute you are open and connected and in the next you feel numb and shut down.  Or, you think you've really gotten over competing with your older sister, and then as she celebrates her new book you feel the burn of resentment and a niggling insecurity.  Or, you have committed to just meeting your mom with acceptance of her choices and yet you find yourself giving her a lecture about the merits of eating more vegetables.

If something like this is happening for you, it may be helpful to take another look using one of these three practices:

1)  Receive empathy accompanied by a deepening modality.

2)  Look for specific do-able actions to meet the needs you identified.

3)  Engage in a mutually exclusive practice.


1)  Receive empathy accompanied by a deepening modality.

Like many experiences empathy can exist on a continuum of superficiality and depth.  Sometimes just a moment of connecting with your experience is enough to bring centering and aliveness.  In the case of well-worn habits, a deep experience of empathy is often needed for things to shift.  A deep experience of empathy is often accompanied by tears of grief and/or joy.  There is usually a sense of opening and spaciousness and a fundamental shift in consciousness along with a sense of stillness or aliveness.  Here are some ways to deepen an experience of empathy:

·      Both giver and receiver are in a quiet, safe space with no possible interruptions and engage in mindfulness practice before beginning an exchange.

·      Empathy is preceded by a period of meditation that leaves you in a still and focused consciousness.

·      Empathy is accompanied by body work or energy work.

·      Empathy is accompanied by prayer or other religious rituals to which you are deeply connected.

·      Empathy is preceded a mindful physical activity such as tai chi, creating art, gardening, etc.


2)  Look for specific do-able actions to meet the needs you identified.

Empathy often feels good and gives a sense of immediate relief and connection, so it's easy to forget the importance of specific do-able requests. Let's take the example about resenting your sister's success.  You know this is about being seen and celebrated.  You understand the whole family dynamic and how this competition and comparing with your sister came about.  You have empathy for each family member and how they contributed to that dynamic.  You've done a lot of work on this!  So why do you still feel a "grrr" when you hear about your sister's new book?

Take a moment to go back to the needs you identified for yourself.  Ask yourself exactly how they are met in your life?  You can probably find a few examples.  You might say, "Well, overall I know I am seen and celebrated."  Now get more specific.  What if you brought extra attention to these needs?  Maybe there is a very particular way you really long to have them met that you have given up on.  Or, maybe you realize that really, they are not met very often.  Or, perhaps when someone is attempting to see and celebrate you, you turn away and don't receive it.  The answer to these questions will inform your requests/actions.  

Here's a few examples of specific requests around being seen and celebrated:

·      In the next month, every time I am with my friend, who I trust wants to see and celebrate me, I will share at least one thing I am proud of and want to celebrate.

·      For the next week whenever someone shares a compliment or gratitude, I will pause, make eye contact and ask my heart to open and relax.

·      For the next month, I will keep a journal by my bed and each evening before sleep I will write down three things I see and celebrate about me or something I have done.


3)  Engage in a mutually exclusive practice.

A mutually exclusive practice is something that, as you do it, the unwanted habit cannot arise.  Let's take the example above of shutting down when you want to stay connected.  You know that, when you shut down, you close your eyes or look away from the other person.  Asking yourself to maintain eye contact when you have the impulse to look away is a mutually exclusive behavior.  You cannot look toward and look away at the same time.  Of course, this is only one aspect of shutting down, but it might be the most accessible concrete step toward what you want to create.  

There are broad mutually exclusive practices whose specifics go beyond the scope of this article, but a few examples include:

·      Loving-kindness meditation helps with anger and ill-will

·      Sympathetic joy helps with jealousy and despair

·      Compassion helps with cruelty and indifference

·      Equanimity helps with craving and aversion


If you reflect upon reactivity that you no longer experience, you might find that some aspects of the three main practices named in this article were a part of that change.  What else was involved?  Set aside time to reflect on the key ingredients that have been a part of creating an experience of equanimity where there was once reactivity.


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3 Responses

  1. Nov 25, 2015
    Margaret Parmenter

    I really enjoy this article. For me, it had many useful ideas that I want to put into practice.
    Thank you!

  2. Nov 25, 2015

    I really appreciated this article. I already keep a gratitude journal and practice mindfulness meditation at least five times a week, but I find myself returning to bad habits-- like shutting down and pulling away during a conflict with my partner. I will attempt to engage in mutually exclusive practices in the future.

    By the way, I did notice a few minor typos in your article.

  3. Nov 27, 2015

    Thanks for writing, I hope your new practice is fruitful.

    Yikes I will check it for typos, thanks for letting me know.

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