Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


A New Understanding of Compassionate Empathy

Is Compassionate Empathy Something That We Create And Maintain Together?

Loneliness in the company of another is a common symptom of being in an irrelationship. In fact, it is often the symptom that first breaks through—into awareness—when those in an irrelationship are bottoming out. It feels like a contradiction in terms: How can I be lonely when I am not alone?

“Of course, it makes perfect sense. Dealing with loneliness isn’t something I can do, well, alone. I guess that would be self-evident to most people, but somehow, the logic of it escaped me!”

Felicia was used to being safely insulated within the “busy-ness” of her family and social life. She rarely had the physical or psychic space to realize that she never, ever talked with anyone about how she felt or what she needed.

Sharing our deep feelings is the way out of the isolation of loneliness. It creates a doorway into the practice of what we call compassionate empathy. Compassionate empathy is the key to getting out of an irrelationship. While empathy can be all-absorbing (consuming) and leave one totally empty and burned-out, to the point that one loses a sense of one’s own boundaries, compassionate empathy allows behaviors that allow profound feelings of connection to another person, without danger to one’s own emotional balance because the compassion applies to oneself and others. Empathy alone, on the other hand, can become very lopsided when compulsive caregiving is involved. Compassionate empathy is built on the skill of sharing honestly with another person. It makes isolation difficult to maintain because it undermines self-obsession. Compassion is the antidote to compulsion.

An irrelationship serves to defend those within from compassionate empathy. In fact, it is a powerful deflector that prevents the emotional state of another person to inhabit oneself. Felicia and George had sadly invested a lot of time avoiding one another, in order to avoid themselves.

“I couldn’t believe how hard it was at first to talk to my husband about my feelings! I honestly had no idea that I hadn’t related to him in that way in years!”

Without knowing it, Felicia and George had chosen a kind of brittle state of feeling safe ("safety") over intimacy. Absent from their relationship—by design—were feelings of excitement in one another, of loving and being loved, of the connection that comes from deeply shared experiences, shared accomplishments, indeed, shared living. Brainlock, that mutual unconscious agreement to avoid vulnerability, kept all of this at bay to their habitual satisfaction of keeping things under control—until it no longer satisfied.

In therapy, Felicia’s developed courage and a willingness to open up a space for compassionate empathy. By keeping the focus on herself—acknowledging and coming clean with her own contributions to the stuckness and the loneliness in their relationship—Felicia unexpectedly made room for a space in which George felt safe talking about his own loneliness.

“I was shocked when George—looking so surprised, and then, oh, so relieved!—told me how lonely he had felt. He never said anything because he was afraid that I’d think he was just criticizing my care of the family. I was stunned. I was becoming aware of how lonely I was, but really had no inkling that my ground rules for running the family were actually keeping him—keeping us—apart. Even the children—all of us.”

Felicia began to learn how isolation worked, and how she and her husband collaborated together to keep a “safe” distance, even though it undermined their desire for connection. But she also began to see that other choices were possible.

Empathy is like being able to plug into a powerful source of electricity, and compassion is like a current regulator, a circuit or fuse, which keeps one from being electrocuted every time. Without compassion, empathy can be too much, and one can get pulled in too deeply and get sucked dry too fast, lose one’s sense of oneself, and get into emotionally and sometimes physical unsafe situations.

Compassionate empathy is different from empathy. It provides space for mutuality—for actual sharing of experience. Compassionate empathy gave Felicia the choice to connect with the lives and feelings of others, without her becoming overwhelmed and lost in their song-and-dance routine. Keeping the focus on herself—with an emphasis on her wants and needs, rather than what was wrong with others—allowed her to maintain boundaries that finally worked.

Dialogue and reciprocity are possible when we pay attention to how we are being affected by those with whom we are close—rather than distancing ourselves from others (e.g., blaming, criticizing, and sometimes even by giving uninvited advice). We learn, through compassionate empathy to pay attention (rather than defend against) the experience of truly being with another, to feel what that triggers in us. This makes room for a vital back-and-forth exchange.

Apropos of compassionate empathy, Felicia states, “The scary thing about this kind of communication is that it opens the door to the very feelings that I was trying to escape in the first place, it puts me in touch with that part of myself—my needs and desires—that I tried to get rid of. But, by being open and honest with George about this, who I really am—I wound up inviting him more thoroughly into our relationship. By being compassionate with myself, painful and frightening as that was, I was able to be compassionate with George—and then he with me.”

Compassionate empathy was the bridge that allowed Felicia and George to connect after years of orbiting around one another at a safe, static and controlled distance. This led to the recovery of the deep emotional connection, long mothballed, that they had once felt for one another. This recovery helped them get out of their irrelationship into real relationship, where they discovered a new joy in jointly taking up ownership of their own love and their devotion to their shared family life. The good news was that feelings of anxiety about family concerns that each harbored in isolation from the other took on a more manageable aspect when faced together. They became a team built on mutuality and full disclosure. That this became a new beginning of intimacy between them almost goes without saying.

Felicia’s final analysis was realizing that compassionate empathy is the dynamic that gets you out of loneliness and irrelationship and into true connection.

“It sounds impossibly simple now, but I didn’t know that the solution to loneliness is other people!”

Visit our website:

Follow us on twitter: @irrelation

Like us on Facebook:

Read our Psychology Today blog:

Add us to your RSS feed:

*The Irrelationship Blog Post ("Our Blog Post") is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice. We will not be liable for any loss or damage caused by your reliance on information obtained through Our Blog Post. Please seek the advice of professionals, as appropriate, regarding the evaluation of any specific information, opinion, advice or other content. We are not responsible and will not be held liable for third party comments on Our Blog Post. Any user comment on Our Blog Post that in our sole discretion restricts or inhibits any other user from using or enjoying Our Blog Post is prohibited and may be reported to Sussex Publisher/Psychology Today.