Empathy: What It Is and What It Isn’t
Empathy is a deceptively simple concept. A common definition is to stand in someone else’s shoes—to feel as another. But, can we really do this? Can I ever leave behind my assumptions—based in the lifetime of experiences that I have had as a highly educated, straight, cisgender, ambulatory, Gen X, White woman—and take the viewpoint of someone else? To inhabit their lived truths? As much as I might try to, the answer is NO. We each are unique and unable to fully assume the perspective of someone else.
One day, standing on a small stepstool, I realized I was having the approximate view that my spouse has—I was shocked by how different our kitchen looked from 5” higher! We have some really dusty high shelves that I can’t see normally. This small shift demonstrates that I can’t ever see the world through my spouse’s eyes—no matter how long we live together, and how hard I try to understand my beloved’s perspective. I’ll never stand in his shoes.
That doesn’t mean that all is lost or that we can’t enhance our empathy—but to do so, we need a clear understanding of what empathy is and isn’t.
Sympathy and Over-Identification
When we stand in our shoes, we can feel sympathy—but not empathy. Sympathy is accomplished by imagining how we would feel if something similar happened to us—or, even worse (and more common), how we think someone else should feel, given their situation. With sympathy, we maintain our world view. Sympathy leads to pity, drives disconnection, and often disempowers the beloved.
Mistakenly believing that we can get into the shoes of another can lead to patronizing attitudes or dismissing their lived experiences. For example, we’ve all heard, “I know what you’re going through” or “I know what you mean”—when we know they don’t! So, the first risk of trying to stand in someone else’s shoes, is that—although we can’t—we might assume that we have, leading to overconfidence in our understanding of the beloved.
A second problem with trying to assume the viewpoint of the beloved is that it will reduce our agency. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) research has found that trying to stand in the shoes of someone who is in distress leads to brain activation associated with fear and debilitating stress. This is over-identification. When we try to assume the perspective of the beloved, we perceive the problem as greater and our resources to meet the problem as less sufficient as compared to when we try to understand the beloved’s perspective, while remembering that we are separate individuals. We are innately prone to try to assume the perspective of the beloved, losing the recognition of our separateness—this is the downside of our mirror neurons: our ability to literally feel the emotional and physical pain that we observe in someone else. It requires conscious effort to understand someone else’s perspective while recognizing our separateness.
What does increase our agency, is good for our health, and helpful to our beloved is to stand barefoot, next to our beloved, assuming a position of loving curiosity and not-knowing. Simultaneously, we attempt to identify our preconceived ideas and judgements, as they arise. This is empathy. Opening ourselves up so we can empathize—taking off our shoes to stand barefoot next to someone—means making ourselves vulnerable.
Empathizing deeply with, without losing ourselves in, the beloved requires a great deal of emotional regulation. Emotional regulation is the ability to identify our emotions, accept them, and still choose how we want to respond in a situation.
We simultaneously acknowledge and reach past our own feelings and needs. It means that we honor someone else’s truth as being as legitimate as our own—which will challenge our faith in our knowledge, especially if our truth includes the binary belief that others need to be wrong if we are to be right. Holding dominant cultural identities (such as being White, straight, cisgender, gender typical, male, protestant Christian, affluent, etc.) means that society has assigned you tight-lacing boots to wear, which makes taking off your shoes all the more difficult—and important if you are to understand others.
Listening to the beloved is the most important behavior for empathic accuracy. Our empathy is further enhanced if we consider what we know about a person from past encounters. Empathic accuracy is also increased if the beloved openly expresses their current, private subjective experience—in other words, if they know themselves and want to let you know them. Bringing love, especially appreciation-love, to a conversation will increase the probability that a beloved will feel comfortable self-disclosing—and that we will attend to what they express.
Interestingly, the genderized expectation that women are better than men at understanding others does not have empirical substantiation. What does appear true is that our fears impact what we observe and that we have confirmatory bias to intuiting our beloved’s intentions—in other words, we listen for and give priority to what we expect to hear, which reinforces our beliefs about our relationships. When our observations are distorted, we are less able to empathize accurately. For example, men who are physically and verbally abusive to women are more likely than non-abusive men to believe that women hold critical and rejecting thoughts of them. They even actively avoid counter-information (e.g., turn away from or close their eyes when women describe relationship troubles). This over-attribution of rejection reinforces their contempt for women and reactivates the cycle of misogyny.
Our desire to understand our beloved’s truth, listen to them, and check our assumptions is the foundation of empathic accuracy.
Empathizing with Yourself
One of the best ways to enhance our empathy is to enhance our self-empathic accuracy. Being that we have spent our entire lives with ourselves, it would seem that self-empathy would be quite easy to access. Again, NO.
Similar to empathizing with our beloveds, when we seek to empathize with ourselves, we make ourselves as open and vulnerable as possible—this time in search of greater self-understanding. We listen to ourselves. Again, we work to identify our preconceived ideas and judgements—about ourselves. Often, we have well-rehearsed stories that we tell ourselves to protect us from getting in touch with our feelings and fears. Our bodies are often the gateways to these stories. These stories are often unconscious implicit memories that ‘explain’ our relational practices as embedded in something innate and unchangeable in ourselves—or in the beloved. Stories that explain our behavior as outside our control strip us of agency. In order to feel empathy for ourselves, we need to excavate these stories and lovingly—bravely—respectfully—stand barefoot next to our younger selves, as we shine a light on our deepest fears. We want to simultaneously honor our narratives and recognize that they are just one possible explanation.
Empathy Considerations and Warnings
Even when we attempt to stand barefoot next to a beloved—providing validation of their experience while not feeling as the other person—we can become overwhelmed. Our mirror neurons may hijack our emotional regulation skills. At these times, we risk the loss of self, which is detrimental to our well-being and to our ability to be of help to the beloved. Unchecked, this can lead to empathic distress. Empathic distress is experienced as emotional bunting and blindness, and is often an unconscious act of self-preservation. It can be a sign that we need to keep our shoes on—for now, at least.
Remembering that Fear always has our best interest at heart, an inability to empathize with someone else, or even ourselves, may be an indication that it is unsafe to do so. If there has been severe pain or violence, seeking to empathize may reactivate the trauma—open wounds and re-inflict abuse. In these cases, you definitely do not want to do this work alone; you need a trusted professional to guide you through the process. And, even with support, this might not be the right time to do that work. However, if empathizing is scary, but not dangerous, you can proceed cautiously and lovingly.
Gifts of Empathy
Empathizing is designed to help us understand our and our beloved’s behavior. This does not mean that we excuse or condone the behavior. Excusing behavior that is hurtful reduces creativity, muddies responsibility, disempowers the participants, and makes the relationship constricting to everyone’s growth.
As we stand barefoot next to our beloved (ourselves or others), we gain a greater understanding of ourselves and others. We appreciate what is unique and what is shared. Understanding leads to insights, which allows us to see options in our response. As we practice empathizing, we empower both ourselves and our beloveds to be the person we each wish to be—and make our relationships a container for all members’ growth.