4 Things People Don’t Know About Empathy
We hear a lot about empathy these days. Barack Obama spoke repeatedly about the need for it. It shows up in corporate mission statements. There are dozens of books, TED talks, and articles written with a rallying call for more empathy in the world.
I’m glad empathy is getting more airtime. If there was ever a need for more empathy, it’s today in our divisive political time. It’s a fundamental skill for human relating. But there are a few things I see missing from the empathy conversation. I give talks and workshops about empathy, so naturally I spend a lot of time researching the subject and speaking with people about their experiences with it.
Here are a few things I would like to see included in this conversation more often.
There’s a difference between “empathic contagion” and “empathic concern.”
Empathy is multi-faceted. Sure, there’s a dictionary definition about being “sensitive to the feelings of others.” But like many complex interpersonal concepts involving feelings and communication (e.g. “sex” and “love”), empathy is more dynamic than what Merriam-Webster should be expected to encompass.
There’s a whole body of academic literature that explores the nuances of empathy that draws on the basic idea of perspective taking and engagement with someone else’s emotional world. In particular, I find it useful to talk about the distinction between “empathic contagion” and “empathic concern.”
“Empathic contagion” is sometimes just called “emotional contagion.” It’s that feeling of “catching” someone else’s feelings. Sometimes this can feel good (spending time with a cheerful friend), but other times it can feel overwhelming and disabling (working in a chronically anxious office). The latter kind of empathic contagion is associated with stress and burnout.
“Empathic concern” is when you’re curious about and nonjudgmentally engaged with someone else’s emotional world. It’s about the pursuit of identifying what someone else might be feeling. It’s about connecting with their feelings, without trying to offer unsolicited advice or hijacking the conversation with your own feelings.
I’m often asked, “Is empathy teachable?” My response is, “It depends on what kind of empathy you’re talking about.” Empathic concern is certainly teachable to most humans, and it’s what I focus on in my work. It’s an emotional and communicative skill that is pivotal to healthier relationships and communities.
Empathic contagion, on the other hand, isn’t so much teachable as it is something that just happens. Some people are more sensitive to it than others, and we can be more susceptible to it with our loved ones.
Your experience is valid, but not universal.
In my work teaching empathy I do a fair bit of empathy mythbusting.
One of the major myths that I see is that people think that empathy is the same thing as shared experience. They think that they’re being empathetic when their friend has just lost their job and they start telling them all about how they felt when they lost their job last year. Or when their colleague’s sister dies, and they lost their father a previous year, that they “totally understand” because “they’ve been through the same thing.”
Your experience is valid, but not universal. We may go through a remarkably similar experience on the surface, but our emotional experience of that event may be completely different to another person’s. Your devastating and traumatic job loss may be someone else’s liberation. You may have not been particularly close with your father, while your colleague’s sister may have been her best friend. Grief is a snowflake – everyone’s is unique.
Empathy is the process of being curious and nonjudgmentally engaged with someone else’s emotional experience. It’s not about assuming we know what someone else is feeling. Empathy requires humility. That’s part of why it’s difficult. Sitting with the uncertainty of someone else’s feelings, without knowing what those feelings are or how to fix them, is uncomfortable AF for most of us. But being able to sit with that uncertainty and be empathically present is how we deepen our connections, how we heal, and how we grow as humans. It’s a skill worth investing in.
Empathy is emotional labor.
I’ve heard several self-help gurus talk about how empathy is “infinite” and how we should all be in our empathy all the time. I listen to this and think “bollocks."
Empathic communication is a skill to be nurtured. The world would be a better place if more of us learned these skills, but being in that deep empathic concern place all the time? Oh my goodness, I feel exhausted at the thought.
I think of it as similar to active listening. Active listening is an amazing tool to add to your communicative repertoire. It will upgrade all of your interpersonal relationships. But it’s an energy-intensive communicative skill like empathy. It’s not reasonable to expect you to do it every single time you engage with another person.
Many of the people who come to my workshops express some shame at not being able to be empathetic all the time. These are often people who work in high burnout professions, like therapy, medicine, or teaching. They feel some relief when I tell them it’s not always possible to be in that super empathic space all the time.
I don’t find it at all difficult to be kind in my everyday encounters, but being curious about and engaged with the emotional worlds of everyone I encounter? I honor that that’s emotional labor and recognize that it’s not always within my capacity to engage empathically all the time.
That said, I actively nurture my ability to stretch my empathic capacity. I do this by practicing my empathic communication skills as I would a musical instrument I’m trying to master.
Sustainable empathy requires sustainable self-care.
In order for empathy to be sustainable for someone, they also have to practice good self-care. When you haven’t gotten your own empathy needs met, it’s difficult to meet others’ empathy needs. If you want to show up with more empathy in the world, you have to proactively set up mechanisms in your life for recharging.
I often think of my empathy reserves as a teacup. When I’m at my empathetic best, my cup is full and I feel like I have the resources to show up for others. I bring lots of energy to the interaction. There’s little space in my teacup to let others’ challenging emotional contagion pour into my cup. Other people’s feelings just land on the surface of my tea. This allows me to recognize their feelings, acknowledge them, and reflect their feelings back to them. Those feelings register, and I connect to them, but they don’t stay in my cup. They don't then become my feelings.
If my teacup is drained, it’s more likely that their challenging feelings will pour into my cup and linger there after I leave the interaction. That’s when I start to feel emotionally worn out.
When I diligently practice self-care, empathy is more sustainable for me. I get to be more helpful when I’m supporting others because I have more internal resources and I don't get depleted in the process. But self-care is not an easy thing to figure out. We’re taught that self-care is indulgent so many of us don’t devote the time to building a strong self-care fortress.
Self-care is not indulgent; self-care is adulting. Meaningful self-care is the stuff that gives you the fuel to fully show up in the world and build strong, empathic relationships. I don’t know what’s more adult than that.
Empathy is not a simple concept. It’s neither easily defined nor easily practiced. But the ability to connect with others’ feelings, imagine other emotional perspectives, and communicate that understanding is pivotal for human connection, innovation, and healing. It’s a worthy conversation to have.