Overcoming the Limitation of Empathy

Higher Order Compassion

Posted Feb 06, 2013

Maintaining intimate connections that have been damaged requires that we go beyond the limitations of empathy (described in my last post) and reach for a higher order compassion for vulnerabilities we do not share.

For example, it’s relatively easy to empathize with people who have lost their sight, because you can close your eyes and imagine how bad that would be. But you need a higher form of compassion for those born without sight, because you cannot imagine what it would be like to have a brain devoid of visual imagery. You cannot fathom it because your brain has developed complex circuitry permeated with visual imagery. It is beyond your capacity to imagine a world without visual images, which would be like imagining that you’re dead — the closest you can come is thinking about being asleep. Because you cannot “put yourself in the shoes” of those born sightless, your compassion forces you outside the limitations of your experience into the world of someone different from you but just as valuable and worthy. Your compassion for the sightless would naturally include appreciation of your differences and admiration for their unique perspectives, greater acuity of their other senses, and their ability to navigate a social world constructed for the sighted. You make yourself a better person by expanding beyond the limitations of your experience. That is the kind of compassion it takes to repair an intimate relationship.

True compassion is giving the specific emotional support that will help the injured party be well. Yet most people in damaged intimate relationships are inclined to give what they would want if they were in their partners’ shoes, because they are stuck within the limitations of empathy. The fact is, what one partner would need to get well is often the opposite of what the other would need, if he or she felt betrayed.

For example, consider intimate betrayal, which I regard as infidelity, abuse, deceit, or covert financial manipulations. Partners vulnerable to shame, regardless of whether they were betrayed or betrayers, want to move beyond the betrayal as soon as possible, preferably to pretend it never happened. They want to be “born again” with a new “enlightenment” that will render all past mistakes irrelevant: “I once was lost, but now I’m found.” For them, living means forgetting. (The root of the word, “shame” means “to cover or hide.”) They may sincerely and gently, with the best of intentions, say to their partners:

“Let’s just put it behind us. We can’t live in the past. We need to move on and get over it. There is so much love we can have now, if we just move away from the past.”

Partners vulnerable to fear, regardless of whether they were the betrayed or the betrayers, want to keep focused on the betrayal, explore all feelings about it and all the ramifications of it, cover all possible reasons and explanations for it, and all possible repercussions from it. For those with a fear-vulnerability, living means remembering. But, despite appearances, they’re not really fixed on the past; fear is about their future - there might be another saber tooth tiger around the corner. They are determined to fully understand the betrayal, in the hope that understanding the past holds the secret of preventing betrayal in the future. They may sincerely and gently, with the best of intentions, say to their partners:

“You must fully grasp how I was hurting when I betrayed you (or how hurt I was when you betrayed me). We have to explore all the feelings we were both having before and after the betrayal, including their roots in childhood, and how they have played out in all our past relationships. And we have to be ever-vigilant, so this will never happen again. We need daily check-ins and emotional temperature readings to be sure that we are not drifting toward trouble again. I need to atone for my mistakes and make amends for betraying you (or you need to atone and make amends for betraying me). There needs to be some kind of ceremony of penance, acceptance, and forgiveness.”

The shame-avoidant lover will construe the fear-driven partner’s continuing focus on the betrayal as a desire to punish, while the fear-driven partner will experience the shame-avoidant partner’s response as evasive or dismissive, designed to trivialize the damage done by the betrayal. Both will feel invalidated and misunderstood, if not outright devalued by the other’s lack of empathy. Remember, compassion differs from empathy because it takes us outside our own experience to sympathize with the hurt of another, which most likely differs from our own, due to our different core vulnerabilities, not to mention our different family histories, different temperaments, different experiences, different hormones or hormonal levels, different trajectory to emotional development, different gender socialization, and different support networks. Compassion leads us to appreciate and celebrate differences, where empathy can easily lead to an illusion of sameness and intolerance of differences.