As my prior blog Empathy Struggles discussed, empathy doesn’t always come easily—even though we are kind, well-meaning people who really do want to empathize. And with some people, empathizing is a harder task than with other individuals.
Our autonomic nervous system may hijack our ability to Empathize, which is why we need to first Pause and then Observe. Besides for the prerequisite that we are calm (created by Pause) and notice what is occurring within and around us (realized through Observe), to Empathize requires that we make ourselves vulnerable. I have realized that empathizing is going to be more difficult with three groups of people: (1) the people we are closest to—our Beloveds, (2) the people we are most dissimilar to—the ‘Other,’ and (3) people who control something important to us—the Powerful.
Difficulties Empathizing with Our Beloveds
As counterintuitive as it sounds, it can be difficult to Empathize with those who we are most close to—our beloveds! Precisely because we are so close to someone, we can struggle to Observe them accurately.
In our intimate relationships, we are dependent on our beloveds. They are critical players in our need to belong, and may also impact our sense of safety and fulfillment (see blog, I Need, You Need, We All Need…). This can trigger our insecurities and deepest fears. As discussed in What is Love? Part 2, appreciation-love can be distorted by codependency. When a relationship is codependent, we hold ourselves responsible for the beloved’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors—and, hold the beloved responsible for our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. If we are ‘con-fused’ about what is our responsibility and what is the responsibility of the beloved, we cannot Empathize with ourselves or the beloved—as we don’t know what is ‘me’ and what is ‘you.’ It takes a lot of concerted efforts to Observe—and self-compassion and patience—to untangle this confusion.
Even when we are clear about what is ‘me’ and what is ‘you,’ we may have distorted perceptions of the beloved. In long term relationships, we often fall prey to assuming how the beloved is feeling or will respond. Instead of clearly observing what they are doing currently, we assume they are behaving as we expect, based on past behaviors. Although there is some continuity in people’s behaviors, there is also growth. We expect this in children, but often discount how much adults also change. We hold a confirmation bias—we notice what we expect and don’t see new behaviors. In the Zen tradition, there is the term ‘beginner’s mind.’ As explained by Leo Babauta, beginner’s mind means dropping our expectations and preconceived notions so that we can view everything as brand new, with curiosity and wonder. It can cause disorientation, but also enhances our relationships, and ultimately reduces our anxiety.
It is clouded observing that makes it difficult for us to empathize with our beloveds. If we notice that we are continuing the same script as prior unsatisfying exchanges, it is a signal that we would benefit from more time spent Observing. We can bridge our empathizing struggles with beloveds through clear, loving observations.
Difficulties Empathizing with the ‘Other’
Conversely, it can be difficult to Empathize with those who we view as different from ourselves. With the conventional definition of empathy (standing in someone else’s shoes), it was assumed that it was easier to put on someone else’s shoes when they were more similar to our own; when someone was perceived as drastically different, there was too large of a gap to bridge. Using our definition, standing barefoot next to someone, we can see that it is our fear that makes it difficult for us to Empathize with someone who we perceive as different from ourselves—we may be forced to acknowledge the gross inequities in the world, we may have our most cherished beliefs thrown into question, and we may have to acknowledge our pain and that of the other. It is the profound vulnerability of being open to learning from someone who we perceive as different from ourselves that makes empathy more challenging in these relationships.
To enhance our ability to empathize with those that we perceive as greatly different than ourselves, we can empathize with our fears—and, we can look for ways that we are similar. With people with whom I have different world views, my first instinct can be to discount their opinions—and them. Instead through the practice of Pause, Observe, and Empathize, I can find our commonalities, as well as understanding how we developed our differences. For example, I have a relative with whom I have differing social views. This person has grown children. One of these children chose to join a religion that I believe espouses misogyny and environmental degradation. Another adult child came out as homosexual. My relative was comfortable with the first child’s choice and disapproving of the second child’s choice. I was able to realize that we both had judgments about adult children’s choices—just in the opposite direction. When I could see that we both want our children to be fulfilled, contributing members of society, I could empathize with both his and my fears.
To enhance our ability to empathize with the ‘Other,’ we need to observe our fears and empathize with ourselves for holding these fears. We need to sit with that discomfort—we may need to take it in small doses, repeatedly reminding ourselves to turn back towards that part of ourselves that feels pain or shame. Once we can Empathize fully with ourselves, only then will we have the resources, the self-love, to Empathize with the ‘Other.’
Difficulties Empathizing with the Powerful
And, the third group with whom we frequently find difficulty in empathizing with are those who we perceive as having power over us—in other words, we perceive that they have the ability to control if our needs are met or not. At the most extreme level, we may be endangered by them. If Fear is obstructing our ability to Empathize, we need to assess if the situation is scary or dangerous (see blog, Scary versus Dangerous).
If being with this person is dangerous (physically or psychologically), we need to do what we can to protect ourselves—now and for the future. When our being is threatened, we should concern ourselves with self-preservation. Protection means getting away from the person, if possible. If we can’t physically distance ourselves, we may emotionally shut down; this can be a useful short-term protection strategy. In these situations, stopping to Empathize with them is not in our survival interests—it is an ill-timed luxury.
After providing ourselves with safety, empathizing can help us to plan how to protect ourselves in the future. When we feel psychologically threatened, our survival instincts engage as if we were physically endangered. However, our narrowed field of perception, racing heart, and other responses of the sympathetic nervous system are sometimes not serving us well to avoid psychological danger. Once we are in a safe place, we can Pause to reestablish our equanimity and then Observe to see all the possibilities of the relationship. Empathizing allows us to understand their fears and needs, as well as our own. This gives us the ability to see all our options, which will enhance our agency in the relationship, find a productive and empowered response, and allow us to best provide ourselves with psychological and physical safety in the future.
If we feel scared, but assess that we are not endangered, then we might be able to Pause, Observe, and Empathize in the moment. But, probably not. If the person controls our ability to get our needs met and our fears have been triggered, we need time to return to equilibrium. It is often best to halt a conversation and set a future time to continue the discussion. I used to have a supervisor who would shift meetings’ topics to unexpected (to me) accusatory content. Unfortunately, I had not yet been gifted the LovePOEM. If only I had the insight to table such conversations; engage in loving Pause, Observe, and Empathize; and then reconvene, I feel certain that we could have had a more productive working relationship. As I was feeling blindsided, I could have asked for agendas so that I could come prepared to our meetings. And if unexpected topics came up, I could have asked for them to be tabled until our next meeting so that I had time to prepare myself for the conversations. I had a misplaced sense of urgency, encouraged by a striving culture. It is an act of love for ourselves—and the other person—to slow down, if needed, so that we can engage compassionately.
With powerful people, fears regarding unmet needs are the greatest drivers of our inability to Empathize.
Empathy Super Heros/Sheros/Theiros
Empathizing is hard, hard work. I honor your dedication and willingness to aspire to the vulnerability of empathizing, and the honesty to admit your limits in your ability to empathize. For me, these first two steps (1. Wanting to enhance my Empathize skills, and 2. Being willing to see my unskillful moments) have been great breakthroughs. Once intention and honesty exist, with practice, empathy naturally follows.
Our skillful execution of empathizing will wax and wane as our empathy skills continue to evolve. It is similar to developing athletic skills. Some days, I have greater fluidity and ability to soar down a steep snow field or bike path than others. But, as I continue to practice, my overall skiing and biking has improved. One way that we can set ourselves up for success is to take care of our basic needs, as much as possible in preparation for an empathy challenge. We want to make sure that we enter these interactions as resourced as possible—not hungry, thirsty, tired, or agitated. Starting literally and figuratively hydrated is always in our best interest as Super Theros of Empathy.
 I credit Dr. Stacy Williams for introducing me to the term ‘sheros.’ I have expanded to ‘theiros’ for a gender-inclusive term.