They Myth of Empathy: What It Is and Isn’t

The notion that empathy can deplete our mental resources or hurt us is an unarticulated myth.We can appreciate someone else’s suffering without the need to experience it.

A good friend has a car accident. Your uncle has dementia. A sibling has breast cancer. In each of these situations, as in any challenging time in the lives of loved ones, our heart has the opportunity to open and experience compassion.

But sometimes, we humans confuse Compassion’s powerful sibling, Empathy, for a virus that’s potentially contagious. 

So, we close up, emotionally distancing ourselves from whatever turmoil a loved one is experiencing, not because we don’t care, but because we are afraid to care too much.

Empathy Fear in Action

Years ago, a friend of mine saw I was struggling with a family issue. When I articulated what was going on, she told me the following:

“You know I love you, but I can’t be around you while you are going through this. It’s too hard for me. Once it’s over, let’s get together.”

Despite knowing me for years, my friend equated “being there for me” with somehow catching the challenges I was facing.

What Empathy is Not

Empathy is not something that requires physical, emotional, or spiritual stamina. It doesn’t ask us to drain our health, bank account, or time. Empathy doesn’t infringe or demand. It isn’t a cosmic paramecium, feeding off of us to help another.

What Empathy Is

The prefix EM means to put into or bring to a certain state. The root word PATHY means feeling or suffering. To have empathy to imagine what another feels in a given situation. We are imagining the Other’s experience, but we are not in the situation itself. Empathy is the emotional lubricant that allows humanity to connect. By putting ourselves in another’s shoes, we stimulate Compassion.

Empathy in Action

My friend’s fear of empathy ironically prevented her from experiencing it. When someone loses a loved one, when there’s a difficult divorce, when a family member is robbed — the greatest thing we can do for that person is be present. The sufferer does not expect their friend to BE in pain, only to acknowledge that it’s there.

Empathy is a silent or verbal acknowledgement to let the sufferer know they are not alone. It can manifest in anything from a homemade pie to a text, letting them know you’re thinking of them.

The Myth of Empathy

There’s this unspoken fear that demonstrating empathy, allowing ourselves to “go there” for someone in pain, is going to break us. 

But the opposite is true: when we open our hearts to someone else’s pain, our heart gets stronger, not weaker. Our ability to put ourselves in another’s figurative shoes makes us more powerful, not less.

A Surprising Benefit to Empathy

When we lean into empathy for another’s suffering, we strengthen self-compassion for ourselves. By welcoming the unwelcome in others, we grow more understanding and forgiving of our own imperfections and challenges.

A Different Type of Mirror

Consider the idea that our world is reflecting back to us the very parts of ourselves that need acknowledgment and compassion.

We all know the famous line from Disney’s Snow White fairytale: 

“Mirror, Mirror, on the wall,

Who is the fairest of them all?”

The Evil Stepmother of Snow White is looking for validation in her magic glass. She is hungry to dispel a nagging fear that she is no longer aesthetically the most desirable.

When we step away from the well-known fairytale villain, we can see the mini, modern day magic mirrors popping up all over social media. No, we aren’t “Evil Stepmothers,” vying to be 
“the fairest of them all.” But our need to be seen in a certain light, what we perceive to be a flattering light, is there for most, if not all of us. And we don’t need an Instagram account to possess a magic mirror: we can look in physical or spiritual mirrors, comparing ourselves to others, wanting everything from our words to our appearance to be portrayed in a way that makes us likeable.

Of course, we want to be liked! We are social creatures; the desire to belong is a human need. Yet somehow, our universal need to be liked, like other universal human traits and experiences, is forgotten. We start to see ourselves separate from others. Our often divisively perceived modern world is a mirror, reflecting back to us the parts of us that need acknowledgment and compassion. We may be able to look at ourselves with compassion, but we forget there’s another side to that mirror: the world reflecting back to us, starving for that same compassion.

Pema Chodron is an American Buddhist nun and author who shares an ingenious exercise for fostering compassion and simultaneously, dispel divisiveness in her latest book, Welcoming the Unwelcome: Wholehearted Living in a Brokenhearted World. The exercise is called “Just Like Me.” 

The Just Like Me offers a quick and effective tool to remind ourselves of our connection to others. The exercise fosters compassion for both ourselves and others, offering us a mental mirror to see ourselves in others.

The “Just Like Me” exercise is particularly helpful when we are in a potentially frustrating situation. Let’s say you are in an airport and your plane is indefinitely delayed. You could start getting all worked up about it (which never gets us anywhere), or you could look around at the other people in the airport waiting with you, “seeing the humanity of all the people” in the waiting area. Holding up that mental mirror to the people you see, knowing they—just like you—were on their way somewhere.

When we hold up the mental mirror of “Just Like Me” we are reminded that our humanity connects us:

“Just like me, that person really wants to be loved.”

“Just like me, that person doesn’t want to suffer.”

“Just like me, that person doesn’t want physical pain.”

“Just like me, that person doesn’t want hatred coming towards them.”

There’s another benefit to the “Just Like Me” exercise: self-compassion. When we hold up a mirror to humanity, we can see our own fears and hopes. Our kindness for others can be reflected back to ourselves. And when we are more compassionate to ourselves, we are more easily able to feel compassion towards others—a beautiful cycle.

Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vN6hTFfqgd0

“Who’s the Storyteller?”

We are always narrating the story of our lives. But so is everyone else.

One of the aspects of writing I adore is the gift of perspective. The facts of a story can drastically be altered by mere observer. Take for example the following:

Scene: a restaurant, a couple in their 30’s sits across from each other

POV of observer:

The woman slides a gold band across the table. The man holds his head down and sighs. He takes the ring and puts it in his back pocket. 

“I’m sorry,” he says. 

“Me, too,” she says, her eyes shiny with unshed tears.

POV of woman:

I’m pregnant and the almost stranger sitting across from me is the father. It’s why he proposed last night, offering up a lifetime together the way someone decides to put extra toppings on their pizza—spontaneous and without much thought. 

Yeah, I accepted. Not because I loved the guy or even liked him. I said yes simply because fear eclipsed judgement, because the idea of motherhood solo or an abortion both felt impossible.

When I slide the flimsy band (like something out of a Cracker Jack box) across the table at him, the relief on his face is palpable.

“I’m sorry,” he says—a white lie—one that renders him unable to make eye contact.

“Me, too.” I’m sorry I didn’t insist we use condoms. Sorry I didn’t know you for more than one night. Sorry that I have lived three decades on earth and still can’t behave like an adult.

POV Man:

I feel like a trapped dog. What was I thinking?? How is It I can run legal cases with finesse but can’t think straight when it comes to a hot woman?!

She asked to meet, so here we are, her puppy eyes haunted looking. (Was this an early sign of pregnancy?) She plays with the tin band I gave her as a quasi-promise ring.

When she slides the ring off and across the table at me, I feel like the cage to my kennel is lifting. I’m getting out of here! I’m getting another chance!!!

“I’m sorry,” I say. Guilt and relief flood through my veins in equal measure.

“Me, too” she says.

Only she doesn’t seem sorry. Her eyes look shiny with a relief that, just moments before, mirrored mine. And yet, the idea of the life inside of her not happening makes the invisible hairs on the back of my neck stand up in cold fear. 

—–

There you have it, three different perspectives on one moment in time. And they are all accurate! 

My dear friend, Steve Bernstein (author of STORIES FROM THE STOOP) recently reminded me of the storytelling layers or perspectives in fiction as well as life. Whether we are crafting a tale on the page or forming one in our real lives, we need to be cognizant of the story we and others are potentially perceiving.

So, the next time you find yourself angry or emotional about something someone did, consider the potential alternate narrative they might be telling. They might be the woman, man, or observer in the “restaurant” of your life story. When we give the gift of an alternate perspective for ourselves as well as others, we are more likely to find compassion and a greater sense of inner peace.

A Reason is Not an Excuse

A reason is a cleverly-disguised rationalization for behavior that we know is skewed from our moral compass. Reason lulls us into justifying actions that we know deep down aren’t good for us. 

Dating during a pandemic is hard. Whether single or married, COVID-19 makes relationships of all shapes and sizes challenging. Some of us are hungering to be held, while others are hankering for some space from our pandemic-bubbled spouse/partner/parent. Nerves are frayed; anxiety and depression are rearing their ugly heads in the wake of uncertainty.

It was only a couple of weeks ago that Texans—myself included—were hit with an unprecedented cold front in February. Some lost power; some lost water; some lost both; some experienced broken pipes and utter destruction of their homes. Now there was COVID and a lack of heat, water, electricity. 

A person’s character under stress is like a developing photograph in a dark room: the truth of who a person is, a person’s substance is revealed through adversity. That adversity can be physical, mental or spiritual. Regardless of the flavor of one’s challenge, how we respond makes all the difference.

I look at Jim McIngvale, owner of Gallery Furniture. Every day and night, McIngvale opened the doors to his furniture stores, offering anyone who didn’t have food, shelter, heat or water to come by his store and stay as long as they needed. So much generosity—during a pandemic of all times—is a compassionate choice. He didn’t need a reason to open his heart and his stores to the public, 24/7; he didn’t need to excuse or rationalize his decision to be generous and kind. One never needs a reason to be thoughtful nor search for an excuse to defend it.

Yet when we consider Senator Ted Cruz and his impromptu getaway to Mexico, we can literally hear Cruz rationalize, offering the public a reason for his Cancun trip in the midst of an unprecedented winter storm in the state he represents: He decided to fly out to the Ritz Carlton in Cancun because he wanted to be “a good dad.” (www.cbsnews.com) His wife, Heidi Cruz, also reasoned their escape from Houston because their house was “FREEZING.” 

But a reason is not an excuse. A reason is a cleverly disguised rationalization for behavior that we know is skewed from our moral compass. Reason lulls us into justifying actions that we know deep down aren’t good for us. 

One unprecedented storm, two public figures. Their reaction to the same events couldn’t be more different. We are all going to face storms in our lives—metaphorical or literal. It’s up to each of us to consider our reactions, our actions under duress. When we make the choice to live by our inner compass, we won’t feel compelled to reason.

A heartfelt THANK YOU to Jim McIngvale for opening your heart and doors to Texas. Thank You for bolstering our state’s character and compassion.