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How to Overcome the Limitations of Empathy

Relationships need unqualified compassion to survive and kindness to thrive.

Key points

  • Empathy in love is based on our ability to identify with our partners’ experience.
  • Compassion and kindness are emotional investments in the well-being of partners.
  • Embedded in empathy is an illusion that partners' experiences and the meanings they give to them are the same.
  • Behavior motivated by compassion and kindness appreciates and accommodates differences.

Empathy is a humane quality, beneficial in most social contexts. But in intimate relationships, especially those that have suffered damage, empathy, as it’s commonly understood, is woefully inadequate.

Empathy is identification with what your person is feeling. (“I feel your pain. I feel you.”) Here’s why this is a serious limitation following relationship damage. You and your partner most likely have different core vulnerabilities that govern your judgments about each other’s experience.

Core vulnerability is the emotional state that is most dreadful to you, against which you’ve developed the strongest defenses. The most common core vulnerabilities are fear and shame. Both are dreadful, of course, but your core vulnerability is what’s most dreadful to you.

For example, people whose core vulnerability is fear of isolation will accept a certain amount of shame, if they have to, in order to feel secure and connected or, at least, to avoid feeling isolated. People whose core vulnerability is shame (failure or loss of status) will risk isolation to feel successful or, at least, to avoid feeling like a failure.

In general, fearful and shame-avoidant people attract each other. Those for whom the most dreaded emotional experience is fear are likely to seek partners they perceive to be protective, powerful, and generous. Those whose most dreaded emotional experience is shame are likely to cope by projecting power, protectiveness, generosity, or other visages of success, and they'll look for partners who are especially appreciative of those qualities.

The same qualities that bring partners together can tear them apart under stress, when they rely on empathy instead of mutual compassion. A fearful partner can hardly identify with the deeper experience of a shame-avoidant partner; failure, though unpleasant, is not as bad when emotionally connected to a partner who cares. Shame-avoidant partners can scarcely identify with the deeper experience of their lovers’ fear of isolation because feeling like a failure makes them want to isolate. These limitations of empathy become a trap when they inhibit understanding and provoke negative judgments:

I wouldn’t be afraid of someone yelling. There’s nothing to be afraid of! There's something wrong with you for being afraid.”

I wouldn’t be ashamed to ask for a raise that will help our family just because the boss might say no. Grow up already!”

Think of how often you've heard statements like, "I would never have done what he did," or "How could she possibly have felt that way?" or "I could not have reacted like they did." Empathy is, in general, confined to one’s own experience and vulnerabilities.

For example, it’s relatively easy to empathize with people who have lost their sight, because we can close our eyes and imagine how bad that would be. But we need a higher form of compassion for those born without sight because we can't imagine what it would be like to have a brain devoid of visual imagery. We can't fathom it because our brains have developed complex circuitry embedded with visual imagery. It’s beyond our capacity to imagine a world without visual images, which would be like imagining that we’re dead.

Because we cannot put ourselves in the imagined shoes of those born sightless, our compassion forces us beyond the limitations of our experience. Compassion for the congenitally sightless would naturally include an appreciation of our differences and admiration for their unique perspectives, greater acuity of their other senses, and ability to navigate a social world constructed for the sighted.

We become better persons by growing beyond the limitations of our experience. That is the kind of compassion it takes to repair intimate relationships.

Compassion and kindness motivate the specific emotional support that will help the injured party become well, which is probably not the same thing you want when you feel emotionally down or injured. 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 needs to get well is often different from what the supporting partner wants.

We're pretty much guaranteed that our partners will give different emotional meanings to the same events and behaviors, due to our different core vulnerabilities, temperaments, metabolisms, developmental and family histories, life experiences, hormones, hormonal levels, and support networks. Compassion leads us to appreciate and celebrate differences. Empathy can easily lead to an illusion of sameness and intolerance of differences.

Neuroscientist Joseph Le Deux and others hold that the experience of emotions is so embedded in personal history and individual psychology and physiology that, like snowflakes, no two are alike. That means empathy is projection. Those who insist that their partners feel what they feel may drive their partners away.

“If I don’t get away, I’ll get dragged into his/her/their moods.”

It's not surprising that those who demand empathy from their partners are usually too judgmental to be empathetic to their partners. They project resentment and inevitably get resentment in return.

Those who appreciate the self-reward of compassion and kindness project compassion and kindness, which tend to be reciprocated, albeit not to the degree that resentment is reciprocated.

More from Steven Stosny, Ph.D.
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