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Empathy, understanding and mirror neurons

Being empathic is not as easy as it looks

Morgan* sat across from me and stared at me angrily. “I can’t believe you’re asking me how I felt,” she said. “I told you I was sad. Surely you know what that feels like.”

I often get responses like Morgan’s, although sometimes more politely phrased, when I ask a client to describe what they are feeling. Their frustration is often two-fold. First, it’s hard to put feelings into words. And second, we want to believe that other people, people who are important to us, and of course especially our therapist, “get” what we’re feeling without us having to break it down into small morsels for them to digest.

But here’s the thing. Although I do understand what anger and a lot of other feelings feel like, what I really understand is what they feel like to me. In therapy, I want to understand what they feel like to my client. And even more important, I want my client to understand what his own feelings feel like – not just in his body, but also in his mind – in words.

I was struck and touched by my PT colleague Lynne Saroya’s beautiful discussion of empathy from the perspective of someone with Asperger’s. Touched because Lynne was so honest about her own struggle to think about and understand; and struck because I do not think what she describes is limited to individuals with a diagnosis on the spectrum.

Describing her reaction to a picture of the golden rule, "Do unto others as you would have others do unto you," as a child, Lynne writes,

From a young age, I incorporated that axiom into my belief structure. But here's where the problem comes in - what I would want "done unto me" is entirely different than what another might want. Likewise, "Putting myself in the other person's shoes" would have me doing something very different than what another person might envision doing in a similar situation. So, the logic is faulty.

While I understand that Asperger’s skews an individual’s perceptions in particular ways, I think what she is saying is true for all of us. Contemporary research into neuroscience tells us that mirror neurons are triggered in our own brains when someone else is sad, angry, or happy, and that those mirror neurons help us feel what that other person is feeling; but what they actually help us feel is what we would experience if we were in that person’s place. If our experiences are similar enough, we can empathize in a way that promotes a connection and can be soothing to the other person. When our experiences are different, we can sometimes offer another perspective or a different solution to a problem. But that is not called empathy.

The psychoanalyst Heinz Kohut suggested that the effort to understand someone else, when made in good faith, can go a long way towards helping them feel better and even, sometimes, to change their behaviors. Because mostly, we want to know that what we are feeling is understandable, even if it’s not what someone else might feel.

Morgan was very pleased when I told her about Lynne’s post, not only because it was actually very useful to her, but also because I acknowledged that I hadn’t explained what was going on for me very well. “I assumed you understood,” I said. “But I think I should have explained myself better. I ask you to tell me what you’re feeling so that I can get a sense of what it’s like for you. And also because I believe that putting things into words to someone else also helps all of us process our feelings – manage them, tolerate them, explore them and move on from them.”

Morgan smiled. “Okay,” she said. “I think I understand you. Now let’s get to work on making you understand me.”

*names and identifying information have been changed to protect privacy


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