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Common Misconceptions about Empathy

You value giving and receiving empathy, but find that you can't access it as often as you'd like.  Sometimes you find yourself avoiding someone or avoiding certain topics.  Other times you get stuck in your view and someone with an opposing view seems impossible to empathize with.  Or perhaps you just don't know when to offer empathy and situation passes before you get a chance.   Clearing up the misconceptions of empathy can support you in being able to offer it.

Before diving into distinctions about empathy it's helpful to remember that these conceptual distinctions require significant integration work.  Reading the distinctions here will likely be simple and easy for you.  Really trusting the truth of them is another thing.  You can think of the following distinctions as practice points to return to again and again.


Self-Connection is Necessary for Empathy

Empathy can sometimes get portrayed as a form of giving up yourself in service of another.  Becoming lost in another's emotional experience simply makes two lost people.  Empathy requires you to stay centered and self connected. In this way you can be a big container for feelings and needs rather than being pulled around by the details of the situation or your own opinions and reactions.

In addition, your own feelings and needs will inevitably come up as you offer empathy. Your ability to name that as it happens, set them aside for the moment, and come back to them later allows you to trust that you won't lose yourself when offering empathy.


Empathy Requires Healthy Boundaries

Empathy doesn't mean accepting people's views, thoughts, or behavior.  It also doesn't mean listening until someone feels better.  Being able to set a boundary when you don't want to offer empathy or when you have offered as much empathy as you are able to is essential.  Empathy is something offered from the heart.  When you are not able to set a boundary, empathy can easily slide into obligated listening and resentment.  When you can't trust yourself to set a boundary you may start to avoid offering empathy, not wanting to be captured in empathy hostage.


Empathy can be short and simple

Empathy in the therapist's office might involve long and deep emotional processing, but empathy in everyday life is often short and not more than a moment of gentle eye contact, a simple head nod, a comforting mmmhmm, Or word or two like "sounds difficult."  This likely something you do consistently already.

A feelings and needs vocabulary is really helpful for empathy and, at the same time, there are many other words in everyday language like "that sucks" or "sounds harsh" or "yikes!", that support acceptance of experience in a simple way.

In addition the more words you are using to offer empathy the more likely it is that you are really talking about yourself and not actually giving your curious and compassionate attention to another. Better to keep empathy short.


Empathy is About Connection not Agendas

Empathy requires the ability to be comfortable with uncomfortable emotions and witness the suffering of others without trying to get them out of it.  As soon as you have a thought about what you would like the other person to feel or do, you have shifted your attention to your own feelings and needs. Simply Express that shift directly, "I notice something is coming up for me."


Empathy Regulates Emotion

Emotion calms and dissolves when someone can receive direct compassionate and equanimous attention to their feelings and needs.  However when someone is in a state of panic, crisis, or dissociation, helping that person get grounded comes before offering empathy (you might not be the person to help with that grounding).  If after offering empathy a behavior or emotion escalates that means that empathy wasn't what was needed in the moment and likely grounding or healing was what was really needed.

A lot of emotion doesn't mean escalated emotion

Many people are running an empathy deficit so that when they finally receive a little empathy, repressed emotions come tumbling out in a flood. This is not the same as escalation.

Lastly when you hear yourself say that "if I offer empathy it will only escalate things," it might be useful to check in and see if that really means that you don't have the energy to offer empathy or that you fear that offering empathy might lead to you abandoning your own needs.

In reviewing these misconceptions about empathy, you likely notice that offering empathy has many layers of subtlety. Offering empathy at very fine levels of attunement is a subtle skill founded upon integrated understanding, self-connection, and profound groundedness.  It is also true that empathy is a simple and obvious thing you can offer easily from the heart in a moment of caring.


Take a moment now to reflect on a relationship in which you have been hesitant to offer empathy. Reflect on the misconceptions above and ask yourself if any of those are at play regarding this particular relationship.


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3 Responses

  1. Nov 30, 2017

    This piece really resonated with me and answered or verified a lot of thoughts / questions I have been having about giving empathy. Thank you.

  2. Dec 02, 2017

    I get so tired of "empaths" with bad boundaries and drama. Nice to see this.

  3. Dec 02, 2017

    your welcome! :)

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