Empathy: More Than a Feeling

I was listening to the radio some months ago and got the beginnings of an answer to something that has been pestering me for quite some time.

As a teacher and as a therapist, I’ve struggled against the idea that empathy is nothing more than a feeling. Usually people who say that don’t have nice things to say about feelings in general, but more on that some other time.

Anyway, people tell me this all the time, in the process confusing empathy with sympathy, which is another can of worms in itself.

Here’s what I think empathy really is.

For empathy to be real and effective, it has to contain three sound components: cognitive, affective, and behavioral. Put another way, it has to involve effective thinking, feeling, and acting.

Feeling
The first thing you need in order to have empathy is emotional contact. That is to say, you have to be able to feel what someone else is feeling. Let’s call this affective or emotional resonance. Someone’s feeling X, along a particular frequency, amplitude, and wavelength, and suddenly you are too, just like them.

Now some people can’t do this. Try as they might, for whatever reason, no matter how much someone is feeling something — sometimes sitting right next to them — they just can’t pick it up.

This isn’t a moral failure; it’s just our training, how we were raised, and/or our neurology. Some of us are wired to resonate more easily than others, that’s all.

Incidentally, it’s not hard to see how resonating too much or too often presents a different kind of problem.

Thinking
So you’re feeling what someone else is feeling. Of course you could stop there; if not, the next step on the road from sympathy to empathy is being able to recognize what it is you’re feeling.

Is it something simple, like anger, loss, excitement, or boredom? Is it a more complex emotion, like guilt, shame, or betrayal? Is it some mixture of either group, perhaps in some tension or even outright conflict with one another?

The cognitive part of empathy involves being able to name the feeling you’re picking up from someone else. This, in turn, involves being able to step outside of the emotion — theirs and yours — just enough to be able to circumscribe it and give it a label.

Here we come to what I like to call the first paradox of empathy. On the one hand, you have to have contact with the emotion in order to resonate with it. To paraphrase a line from commercials often used to sell the lottery, you have to be “in it to win it.”

At the same time, however, you have to be able to step outside of the feeling just enough to be able to say “this is what I’m feeling” and not something else.

So the first paradox of empathy is that you have to be inside and outside of a feeling at the same time. Needless to say, not always an easy task; especially when the feelings are mixed, intense, or complex.

Acting
Last but not least, in order for empathy to be effective, it has to do something. That is to say, it has to be able to effect a particular kind of change in a relationship or the interpersonal world.

Most often done this is done verbally. You feel something that someone else is feeling, you put it into words, and then share you share those words with them. But it can be done non-verbally as well. A gasp, knowing glance, hand on the arm or shoulder, or a facial expression is sometimes all that people need to know you get them.

If you’re right (or even in the right ballpark), then a bridge gets built between the two of you that most of us call understanding. And if you keep at it (whether as a therapist, partner, friend, or family member), the bridge widens and gets sturdier.

That’s when it gets strong enough to carry trust.

This brings us to what I like to call the second paradox of empathy. When you say what you think someone’s feeling, you can be right or wrong. Either way, for someone to tell you how you’re doing with regard to understanding them presupposes a certain amount of trust. Absent that trust — most often a trust that good things can come from conversations like these —  people may not tell you whether you’re even close to getting them.

And empathy is what allows that trust to happen in the first place. So the second paradox of empathy is that it both presupposes and is responsible for building trust.

I love paradoxes 🙂