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

A Dish for the Soul: Empathy

Dr. Pearcey, a Cognitive Psychologist at the Institute for Spirituality and Health, offers humanity a powerful tool for cultivating empathy.

The world feels more divisive than ever. Whether it’s how to handle COVID-19, the environment, the economy and everything in between, there’s a great deal of polarizing opinions. Yet there’s a fine but distinctive line between having an opinion and holding a grudge against someone for possessing an opposing, alternate viewpoint.

Our newly instated President Biden is palpably aware of the charged air. He asks us to put aside our differences, “uniting to fight the foes we face.” (Source: Vox).

We—a small but powerful pronoun. We are all together; humanity is interconnected in this mysterious life. We affect each other on levels great and small.

The charged air, the divisiveness and polarized opinions with metaphorical haunches raised (and sometimes literal, as we witnessed on January 6th at the Capitol), is fear-based reaction. Underneath the anger and violence is fear and pain. The lashing out is a manifestation of untended to psychological wounds.

Enter Dr. Jeremiah Pearcey, a Cognitive Psychologist at the Institute for Spirituality and Health (www.spiritualityandhealth.org) who offers “education and guidance…helping people reduce stress.” The other week, in honor of Martin Luther King Jr., Dr. Pearcey offered a mindfulness meditation to explore the historical moments leading up to the Civil Rights Movement, cultivating a greater understanding and compassion for others and ourselves. The title of the Zoom event: “A Day of Embrace and Peace.”

The idea of embracing the historical moments leading up to King’s famous “I Have a Dream Speech,” of finding peace in the face of tension seems like an unlikely pairing. Yet the wise Dr. Pearcey’s guided meditation is just what the world needs now.

After several cleansing breaths and a reminder to get comfortable, attendees of the conference, myself included, were guided by Dr. Pearcey’s soothing voice to journey with him. We were asked to imagine ourselves in 1619 as Africans suddenly separated from our families, not understanding the language of our captors, chained together on a boat. Our journey continued to a plantation in 1800, where any courage to leave our “owners” was often extinguished by the site of other African Americans strung up on trees—a visual reminder of the dire risk for our freedom. We were even brought to the recent past, our last breaths labored, as George Floyd’s was, letting our capture know, with the little we had left of life, “I can’t breathe.”

Dr. Pearcey’s meditative guidance offered us a powerful tool for cultivating empathy and one that we can use in our daily lives. The prefix EM literally means in and PATHY means feeling. Under Dr. Pearcey’s steady and compassionate guidance, we were able to experience empathy for our ancestors and the victims of systemic racism today.

Did anxiety surface during the meditation? Anger? Hopelessness? Yes, to it all. Yet the mediation allowed a safe space to observe without judgement, to feel without attaching ourselves to the unpleasant emotions.

It is okay to feel uncomfortable in this life. When we practice self-compassion, we are more apt to feel compassion for others. Unity is a by-product of acknowledging our differences and cultivating empathy. When one of us suffers, we are all suffering; when we acknowledge our discomfort, our anxiety, our anger, or our hurt from a place of compassion, true healing can begin—for ourselves and, by extension, the world around us.