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The Paradox of Empathy

The more we care for someone, the more we struggle to help them.

Key points

  • Our reflexive shifts in physiological state influence how the world and the people around us experience us.
  • We must recover from disruptions in our physiological state to optimize our capacity for compassion.
  • We broadcast whether we feel safe, unsafe, or overwhelmed through our face, voice, and body language.
  • If we meet our body where it is, we have an opportunity to move between states of empathy and compassion.

The more we care about someone, the more difficult it is to help them. Despite our intentions of relieving their pain, our suffering alongside them interferes with our capacity to be helpful.

As we observe someone we care deeply about amid their struggles, we hear the hurt in their voice, see the strain in their face, and feel the fear and frustration in their body. Whether we recognize it or not, their tone of voice, facial expressions, and body language trigger reflexive physiological shifts beneath our conscious control.

Functionally, we may experience changes in heart rate, breathing, muscle tension, metabolic output, and body temperature as our autonomic nervous system reflexively diverts resources from supporting homeostasis and toward attacking, defending, or protecting. This rapid disruption to our internal sense of safety provides the neural platform for empathy, an essential ingredient within our shared human experience.

The deeper our connection to someone, the more intimately attuned we are to their pain and suffering, the more intense the physiological disruptions to our sense of safety, and the more empathy we experience and express.

The consequences of these internal shifts (i.e., heart rate, breathing, metabolic output, muscle tension) help us better understand and appreciate what they are going through. Simultaneously, we tell them that we genuinely know what they are experiencing, not through our words but through our facial expressions, tone of voice, and body language. This rapid, reflexive, and subconscious exchange helps them feel seen, heard, and understood, cultivating trust.

However, the more we love and care for someone, the more intertwined we are with their bodily feelings, the more extreme our reflexive physiological reactions, and the more challenging it becomes to recover our sense of safety. Despite our intentions, values, and goals, we simply can’t help someone feel better if we continue to suffer alongside them because we inadvertently tell them we are hurting because of them.

Source: Michael Allison / 2023 Snapshot from ESPN Video
Team box for Carlos Alcaraz - Note the variety of facial expressions and body language Alcaraz sees and feels when he looks here for support
Source: Michael Allison / 2023 Snapshot from ESPN Video

As coaches, leaders, friends, teammates, parents, helping professionals, and life partners, we are responsible for recovering from empathic physiological states to provide compassionate support aligned with our heartfelt intentions. Whether watching our seven-year-old freeze on stage during her school’s choral performance, our junior tennis player smash his racquet and put his head down, or our colleague struggle to articulate their thoughts in a business meeting, we must recognize and respect how our physiological shifts to their discomfort add to or help mitigate their pain and suffering.

“The voice is the broadcaster of our physiological state,” says the founder of the polyvagal theory, Stephen W. Porges, Ph.D. Our facial expressions, body language, vocal rhythms, pitch, pace, and tone are more impactful and essential to our bodily reactions than the words we use. We may tell those we wholeheartedly intend to support to “relax, no pressure here, you’ve got this,” while the tone of our voice, tension around our eyes, and our stiff, rigid posture send a contradictory message of angst, worry, and doubt.

What happens or doesn’t happen after our initial empathic response doesn’t necessarily reflect our intentions, character, values, and motivation to help. It might more accurately reflect our autonomic resilience and our ability or inability to recover into a physiological state of safety. We might have every intention and desire to express our compassion for someone we deeply care about. However, their pain may disrupt our physiology so that we lose control and erupt, spin out, run away, or implode. The more we care about and are connected with someone (i.e., kids, partners, loved ones), the more massive our reflexive bodily responses and the more challenging it is to maintain and regain the calming control of our physiology.

The solution isn’t to stop, repress, or ignore our initial empathic response. The bodily feelings beneath our internal experience of empathy aren’t deliberate decisions but natural reactions that hold vital information. The necessary first step in the trust-building process is to feel another’s pain and let them know we feel it, not through our verbal language, but through our body language, tone of voice and facial expressions. Yet, as we become keenly aware of these empathic physiological shifts, we may regroup and align with our body in skillful ways that help us signal our support of them versus our suffering because of them.

This pivotal shift enables us to come alongside someone who is hurting, lift them up when they are spiraling downward, or calm them down before they explode. If we remain locked in our dysregulated state of uncertainty, fear, or worry, we layer that on top of their dysregulated state of uncertainty, fear, or worry.

Michael Allison / Wimbeldon Coverage NBC 2023
Ons Jabeur's husband overwhelmed during the 2023 Wimbeldon Final
Source: Michael Allison / Wimbeldon Coverage NBC 2023

We see examples of this play out on the biggest stages of professional sports. In the 2023 Ladies Wimbledon Final, Ons Jabeur, the highest-ranked African and Arab player in professional tennis rankings history, was carrying the weight of her country into the match. As she struggled to relax and find her game throughout the match, her husband struggled alongside her. His physiological reactions were intense and relentless and would eventually overwhelm his resilience. He would sometimes lower his face into his hands and stare downward, feeling helpless, hopeless, and lost. When Jabeur glanced to him for support, energy, and encouragement, instead, she saw a face, body, and posture signaling doubt, distress, and despair.

Beneath their unspoken exchanges of abandoning hope was something more profound and intimately powerful, a secret agreement between them that added even more pressure and meaning to the moment. In a 2024 documentary, Ons Jabeur: This Is Me, Jabeur shares, “If I had won this final, I was going to try and have a baby right away. And that dream faded. The idea of having a baby disappeared when I lost.”

We never really know the stories people tell themselves to make sense of what’s happening to them. We never really know what’s triggering the underlying shifts in our physiology. We can’t predict precisely how our body will respond to the pressure of performing. We can’t control our reflexive physiological responses to the pain and suffering of someone we care for, love, and are committed to helping. Our physiological shifts and dynamically changing internal environment are part of the human experience.

However, when we recognize how our bodily reactions interfere with our capacity to be helpful and might add to their pain, suffering, and discomfort, we can "meet our body where it is," first. Through awareness, self-care, and compassion, we can relate to what’s happening within our internal environment and begin to soften the edges around our bodily reactions so that we can align with our heartfelt intentions of wanting to help those we care most about.

In a recent interview with The Associated Press, Simone Biles shares something simple yet deeply impactful in her journey back to the 2024 Paris Olympics. Every day during her first professional meet in Belgium, Biles’s mother would come to her hotel room and braid her hair for 30 to 45 minutes. “My daughter is (27), and I know (she) can braid her own hair,” Nellie Biles said. “But it’s just that touch, that togetherness. It’s that bonding. It’s what she needed, and it worked.”

This story between a mother and daughter is a touching example of turning empathy into compassion. It shows how to fully feel and understand the struggles of someone you love while recovering “just enough” physiologically to come alongside them and give them exactly what they need.


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