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Jane Bolton Psy.D., M.F.T.,
Jane Bolton Psy.D., M.F.T.,

Raise Self Esteem with the Lifeblood of Empathy

Why is it so hard to give and get empathy?

"Shared sorrow is half sorrow, shared joy is double joy." -Unknown

"The most dangerous enemy of mental health is isolation. Our needs for connection are hard-wired." Susan Johnson, PhD

Sometimes we forget the importance of the mutual empathy that friendships offer for our wellbeing and self esteem. This morning's Los Angeles Times Health Section reminds us of the power of connection and "empathy's [good] effect" on healing colds.

I offer the next few posts about empathy; what it is and is not, why it is important, and what keeps us from giving and receiving empathy.

The opposite of empathy

"How could you do that to me!?" I heard that phrase, I mean really heard it, when I called my mother to tell her that I had decided to get a divorce from my doctor husband of 10 years. By that time I had experienced enough therapy with empathy to know that her response was ever so self-centered. There was no concern for what I was going through, or for how it would impact my children, or even for my later-to-be ex-husband.

I had known in my guts, thought not yet in my head, that any distress that her offspring had would be experienced by her as a betrayal--as treason, even. I knew not to expect any compassion.

That was then. Now, remembering the exchange is very funny to me; it's so outrageously unempathic. Now I can have compassion for the emotionally fragile woman, who had always longed to become an MD herself and who felt she needed academic status to feel worthwhile. Now I know in my veins the immeasurable difference it makes to receive and give empathy, and to do without it. And now I have a passion to make a difference to people who are deprived of empathy, people who still have to live with the daily disconnect and lasting loneliness.

The problem is, many people may have had little experience with being given empathy and don't know the difference.

Why is empathy so important?

I call empathy lifeblood, because it gives us vitality. After all, a basic everyday, all day human need is to be seen, heard and recognized for who we are. Not for how someone would like us to be. Not for how someone is trying to get us to be. But for who we are inside: Our feelings, thoughts, desires, and dreams.

Receiving and giving empathy meets that indestructible human need for recognition. Empathy is so appreciated by Sam Keen, author of Fire in the Belly, that he dubs it one of the Ten Heroic Virtues. He writes: "We need to feel connected to each other. We need to feel we belong, are worthy of metaphorically being reached for, of being held." Keen goes on to say that empathy is not simply receptive. "[Empathic] Listening is the art by which we reach across the space between us. Passive attention does not work."

We were born hardwired to feel our emotions. All of our feelings are survival mechanisms. When we pay attention to our feelings, and think about them, we can use them to help us understand what we need from moment to moment. With the knowledge of what we need, we can take action to meet those needs. Now the empathy boost: When another person makes an attempt to guess or can sense and express what we feel, it can be like an energy transfusion. It gives us a burst of hope and optimism and energy. That renewed energy brings us closer to being able to act upon what we need. That way we can meet our human obligation of taking good emotional care of our selves.

Pat Love & Steven Stosny, authors of How to Improve Your Marriage without Talking about It, say, "Developing the ability to experience the world through your partner's eyes, while holding on to your perspective, may be the single most important skill in intimate relationships."

"I have come to believe that empathy, more than any other human faculty, is the key to loving relationships and the antidote to the loneliness, fear, anxiety, and despair that affect the lives of so many people, " writes Arthur Ciaramicoli in The Power of Empathy.

I've spent decades learning about the power of empathy to heal and support blossoming of the self and relationships. And I have come to believe that love is the commitment to be willing to see any and everything from the other person's point of view. To me, then, commitment to conscious empathy is real love.

What is empathy?

Webster defines empathy as: n.(1904) The action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or the present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated directly.

Another definition: the ability to accurately understand and sensitively respond to the experience of another living being.

Examples of empathy

Imagine a toddler trying to walk over to a puppy, lose his balance and plop to the floor. His first response is a surprised look. An empathic mother might respond lightly: "Uh oh!" showing she understands that he made a surprise blooper- from his point of view. He didn't achieve the continuous walk he had intended. If she runs to him, shrieking, "Oh my God, you poor thing!" she is showing her own anxious point of view.

A more complex empathy might be with a teenage daughter who is pleading for an expensive prom dress, which the parents are unwilling to buy. Saying, "You want to feel special and look extra-beautiful on this very special night. And you want to fit in with what your friends are wearing" would be empathic. It shows that you understand her point of view. "Who do you think you are," or, "Money doesn't grow on trees," are not empathic responses. There's nothing about her point of view in either statement.

Or, to use a dating example, a woman, I'll call her Judy, tells her live-in boyfriend that she is going to see the movie Lars and the Real Girl with her friend Sally that night. He heard her speak two weeks ago of getting free tickets to that movie from a movie survey company. When she comes in later than expected, her boyfriend is withdrawn. He tells her, "I remember that you got free tickets and went to that movie a couple of weeks ago. Judy empathically responds, "Since you thought I had already seen Lars and the Real Girl, I can imagine you thought I might be lying when I said I was going to see it with Sally. I can imagine it made you feel distrustful."

Spontaneous empathy

Empathy can sometimes seem to appear spontaneously. More often, there needs to be a deliberate effort to experience and express it.

Here's an example of the spontaneous version. Once as an old boyfriend and I were breaking up, he stood at my open front door as he was making his final exit, shouting, "And you can go to Hell!" As I told a girlfriend about that goodbye scene, she said, "How could you take being treated like that?" But I wasn't hurt by his uncharacteristic explosiveness. I had seen into his usually sweet blue eyes, I saw the pain there. I was not insulted or afraid. I understood.

Willed empathy

Empathy is usually, however, a controlled, intentional activity needing a thoughtful, active and intelligent exploration. The focus is on what lies under the surface of another human being.

Empathy requires balance between over-heatedness and frigidness. We must integrate feelings and thoughts in order to not get over-aroused by our emotions. In an intense encounter, it requires that we slow down so that thoughts can catch up with our feelings.

So-called "negative" emotions like fear, anger, shame and guilt make high metabolic demands on our bodies. When there is such high physiological arousal, our focus narrows. This narrowing of perspective has helped us for millions of years to survive in an emergency by eliminating anything that would distract us from being able to fight or get away.

The problem at this stage of our human evolution is that functioning from our old brain allows us to go into "prove them wrong and myself right" position (fight)or "I'll just get out as fast as I can, or withdraw internally" (flight). Our widened perspective of the whole picture vanishes. And we can get "blinded' by our emotions and say and do things which only escalate the conflict.

Barriers to giving empathy

1. Impatience at having our needs for empathy temporarily unmet

One of the most difficult times to be empathic is when someone is misunderstanding us and not thinking well of us. We can feel a desperate need to explain why we did what ever we did, i.e., "I was just trying to help you." We may feel an urgency to at least prove they are wrong about their opinion about us: "I didn't mean it that way!" Alternatively, we may want to prevent them from feeling pain, as in, "But I love you, how could you think I would do that."

But to really build the safe haven of relationships, we first need to connect before correcting their interpretation of our behavior. We connect by speaking of where they are emotionally before giving our point of view. Let's say you are an office supply salesman at a party with your new wife. A woman finds out what you do and starts telling you about a new recycled paper her company uses for their business cards.

At home, after the party, your wife is distressed at what she thinks is your flirting. The empathic path would have you saying something like, "Oh, so it seemed as if I was flirting with her when I leaned over and took her card. I can understand that. I wonder if you were afraid I was going to call her and ask her for a date." With empathy, you correct her understanding second. Only after verbalizing her viewpoint, you explain that the woman was telling you about a new recycled paper and that she was showing you her business card which was made of it. That's the hard part-waiting to share your point of view, allowing yourself to be misunderstood for a while.

2. Desire to punish "bad" others

Unfortunately many of us were raised with the idea that the most important, even the first thing to do when there is conflict, is to determine who is right and who is wrong, or who is innocent and who is guilty, who is the victim and who is the perpetrator. (Does the playground blurt, "You started it!" sound familiar?)

When one person "punishes" another by attack, or by withdrawal of either the self or of love, nothing helpful ever happens. A dramatic example is when one partner has an affair. The "bad"/punished one may stop an outward activity, but internally the resentment at feeling coerced and the fear of being treated without caring lingers on and on and on.

The person who "wins" by punishing and therefore stopping the other's behavior never really feels safe either. He/she knows the new behavior didn't come from a real owning of the different behavior. Understanding what unmet needs or false beliefs underlay the affair needs to happen for real change to occur.

3. Fear of rewarding or encouraging "bad" behavior

When I was growing up, there was much interest in "conditioning" good behavior. There was a belief that if one responded with warmth to another's pain, it only made the person express more pain to get more sympathy. "If I try to understand him, he'll keep coming home late!" is the belief.

I remember getting sick just once when I still lived in my parents' house. I was fourteen, too sick to go downstairs to eat, sitting propped up against some pillows, waiting for my unwanted lunch to be brought upstairs by my mother. I saw her walk across the room towards me with a tray in her hands. As she leaned down to place the tray on my lap, she rammed the tray into my stomach. I cried out in shock, "Why did you do that?" She scowled back," I don't want to condition you to be sick by rewarding you!"

The belief is that if someone is treated kindly when they do something that doesn't please us, they will just do the 'bad' thing more. The desire is to control the behavior of the other. Many people have rigid rules about how other people should act and they think that the others are 'bad' if they do not act according to their own rules.

I have heard parents say "Ignore him. He just wants attention." To me this is similar to saying, "Don't feed him. He is just hungry." I've even heard hospital personnel say, "She's just trying to manipulate us by threatening suicide, so I'll just say, 'go ahead and jump!'"

We can see here some of the barriers to our giving empathy. My next post will cover some of the barriers to receiving empathy.

About the Author
Jane Bolton Psy.D., M.F.T.,

Jane Bolton, Psy.D., M.F.T., is a supervising and training analyst and adjunct professor at the Institute of Contemporary Psychoanalysis in Los Angeles.

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