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


Stop Giving Me Empathy! It Makes Me Feel Bad

Sometimes, we have barriers to receiving empathy.

In a previous post, I talked about the barriers to giving empathy, the lifeblood of self-esteem, and healthy connection. In this post, I focus on three barriers to receiving empathy: 1) confusion about pity, sympathy, and empathy 2) desire to punish oneself for hurting another, and 3) trying to avoid vulnerable tenderness when a need is met.

1. Confusion about empathy, sympathy, and pity

Most people do not want to feel less strong or capable than others. When feeling painful feelings such as distress, fear, sadness, or shame, many people feel vulnerable, and at that time may see themselves as less powerful than usual and as less powerful than others.

In this temporarily less powerful state, another person's feeling responses to our feeling state can make us feel better or worse. Three common responses to another's pain and vulnerability are pity, sympathy, and empathy. And the greatest healer of these is empathy.

Pity is felt by one person who compares themselves with another and feels better off than the other—at least in the moment. So, pity can be a separating emotion. "Oh, you poor thing!" might be one way of expressing pity. Few people want to feel pitiful, or pathetic. Pity is often condescending and may include feelings of superiority, contempt (a mixture of disgust and anger), and rejection.

Many people who are not used to receiving empathy confuse receiving empathy (understanding) with receiving pity and therefore may feel belittled and insulted.

There is another important confusing factor with pity. That is that people may criticize themselves for having painful emotions. Then they think that others are looking down on them because they are looking down on themselves. This self-contempt for one's own vulnerable states is a major cause of low self-esteem.

Sympathy, on the other hand, is when one person feels the feelings of the sufferer as if he or she were the sufferer.

Sympathy is an automatic, involuntary response to another person's emotional state. Babies are born with the ability to sympathize. Hospital nursery staffs know well the phenomenon in which one baby starts to cry and within moments all the babies are bawling.

In adulthood, if someone feels the sadness of another which then arouses their own unacceptable sadness, they may try to stop the sadness of the other so they won't have to feel the pain. This indicates not only a lack of empathy for the self and other, but a lack of a healthy boundary as a separate, but relating, person.

Sympathy is thus shared suffering. Sympathy often seeks to console, while empathy seeks to understand. In sympathy, one's own past is brought in, as in "I remember when ________(some past experience, i.e., "when my father died") I was incapacitated for months!"

The person sympathizing may, over time, feel burdened or burned out. To look at the other side of the sympathy equation, the one being sympathized with may feel as if they are causing pain to the sympathizer, and feel guilty.

Empathy requires much more of an advanced integration of thought and feeling. In empathy, no past is spoken about. The only thing present is the other person's experience, feelings, and story. As Kelly Bryson says in Don't Be Nice, Be Real: Balancing Passion for Self With Compassion for Others, "Relating to another's experience is about you. Empathizing is about them."

When one person understands the other's plight and at the same time maintains a healthy emotional distance, that's empathy. Active thinking is required to calm one's own possible emotional reactivity. The automatic impulse to judge and criticize must be put aside.

Empathy is concerned with a much higher order of human relationship and understanding: engaged detachment. In empathy, we "borrow" another's feelings to observe, feel, and understand them, but not to take them onto ourselves. By being a participant-observer, we come to understand how the other person feels. An empathetic observer enters into the equation to be with the other's experience and then removes him/herself to think about and to verbalize.

Since the empathizer is not taking the other's feelings personally, the empathizer does not feel that they have "caused" the other's feelings and thus does not react with anger, shame, or guilt.

2. The desire to punish oneself for hurting another

Finding fault with another is unproductive. But so is the self-flagellation that may occur after one learns that their activities have triggered hurt in another.

Self-blame is the refusal to give oneself empathy and has painful consequences for both people.

In the process of self-blame, connection with the one who was hurt is cut off. The focus goes to the self, instead of the injured party. The person who could be helped to restore their sense of wellbeing is hurt--yet again.

Let's say an adult child, in an attempt to find self-respect by finally speaking up, tells her mother of ways she was hurt in her childhood by constant criticism. The mother may deny that hr daughter's view ever happened. Or, the mother may turn and blame the adult child, "But you kept breaking the house rules!" Yet again, the mother may give her good reasons that the criticisms were necessary: "My parents did the same with me, and I turned out all right, so I thought it would be good for you too."

But even more unproductive may be the mother's crumbling into guilt and shame, "I know I was a terrible mother; I never paid attention to anything but success. I feel terrible, I don't know how I can live with myself, I'm such a selfish person, I wish I were dead," etc. The conversation can get right back to focusing on the parent's pain. Once again this leaves the adult child's feelings and needs unseen, and unrecognized. In this case, what the adult child needs is to see the parent's pain, his real remorse about the fact that the adult child was hurt. Not that the parent is hurting about his own self.

When a caretaker cannot hear with empathy that they have hurt the child, it sets up a fundamental internal conflict for the child with devastating life consequences. The child must choose to lose either 1) a sense of a zesty self if they do not share their painful feelings with the parent, or 2) a sense of safe connection with the parent if they do share their painful feelings.

Importantly, in addition, when empathy to oneself is cut off, more pain for the self and less empathy for the other is the result. The longer one is judging themselves, refusing self-empathy, the longer it will take to develop a true understanding of the other person. If we want to make a change in our behavior, understanding and accepting one's self comes first. Punishing never helps in the long run—punishing either the other or the self.

3. When a need is met, a vulnerable tenderness may show up

Sometimes, people may ward off another's empathy for the mere fact that it is needed so much that if empathy is received, it may trigger even more vulnerability. For example, in my clinical practice, I often find that when a client's unrecognized need is met, there are tears. Tears of gratitude, of relief, and also of sadness at the former deprivation. Last week, in a difficult call to a client's teacher, while the client was in the room with me, I defended the validity of my client's point of view. After the call, my client sobbed, "No one has ever stuck up for me like that. Thank you."

Another example: decades ago, before most people had stopped smoking, a cigarette-smoking woman in her 20s, had recently broken up with her boyfriend and was lonely and depressed. In an initial interview, she rummaged in her purse for her lighter. As she dug and dug but couldn't find her lighter, I asked, "Would you like a light?" She burst into tears at this kindness, which she felt that she had not experienced for so long.

When we are without information, experience, and perspective about empathy it can be difficult to give and receive this "single most important skill in intimate relationships" (Love & Stosny). And the truth is that even when we realize the importance of empathy and decide to learn the skills, it can still be challenging.

The main point I want to make about empathy is that even though it is sometimes difficult to give, to get, and to learn, it is worth the effort.


About the Author

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.