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A Definition of Empathy

Much of my website is about human connection and closeness, and empathy is the critical ingredient that makes much of that work. In this article I will start with a definition of empathy, and then I will spend some time digging into the workings of the thing, and why it is so central to being human.

Merriam Webster's definition nails it pretty well:

“Empathy: the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another ... without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner”

In other words, "You get me.  You get my experience without me fully telling you." 

And Digging A Little Deeper Into the Meaning of Empathy

The definition above captures something crucial about empathy, the element of understanding the experience of another without being told, or at least without being fully told. And how do I come to understand more about your experience than you have actually told me?  It works more or less like this: In addition to whatever you tell me in words, there is all that you are telling me in your tone of voice, your facial expression and your body language. A lot of what you convey through these other channels tells me about emotion, about what you are feeling and how strongly. Without me really trying to, the emotions that you are showing stir up some of the same emotion in me. If this works properly, I find myself feeling some of your pain, feeling some of your joy, sharing your emotional state in a way that leaves you feeling that someone is with you in what you are going through.

This feeling element often gets triggered automatically when we are around someone who is feeling strong emotion. If someone is laughing hard, or crying bitterly, we will feel some of their emotion without even trying. In addition to this automatic experience, there is a part of empathy that you could call an imagination exercise. This is a part of empathy that we are in control of, and a part that we can even practice: If I want to understand what it is like to be you, I can take all the information I have, and then use my imagination to imagine what it is like to be you. This is connected to the standard parental question, “how would you feel if someone did that to you?” To practice empathy, simply imagine what someone else is going through, and especially imagine how they must feel. The feeling part is crucial. It is nice to have someone know what we are going through. It is even more precious to have someone feel what we are going through, feel our pain and feel our joy.

Singing the Praises of Empathy

As I have been writing my website articles about closeness and relationships and communication, I keep being drawn back to ideas about empathy, like a moth to a flame.  A flame is probably a good metaphor, because the warmth of a relationship comes when I am feeling what you are feeling, when we share a moment of feeling the same thing together.  Let me take a moment here to sing the praises of empathy, the thing itself.

Empathy seems to be a large part of what allows us to feel close to one another. Empathy is that process that allows me to feel what you are going through, to feel some emotion in response to your emotion. If you are telling me about your painful experience, with emotion in your voice, and possibly tears in your eyes, if I care about you, I will be feeling pain too. You will hear in my voice and see in my eyes that I am sad in response to your sadness. At that point you will feel that I am feeling some of what you are feeling.  That part is crucial, because when you can feel that I am sad about what you are going through, you won’t feel alone in your sadness anymore. You will feel cared about, and feel that someone is in there with you, feeling something with you. 

This also works for happiness and joy. If you tell me some piece of great news, and my face lights up because I’m happy for you, you will find yourself even happier, and suddenly the happiness is an experience that we are sharing. Both sorrows and pleasures seem to get deeper and richer when someone else gets them, and lets their emotions be touched by your emotions.

At the other end of the spectrum, think about the bleakness of what happens without empathy.  If there is no one that feels or understands what we are going through, then we are alone in our sadness and even alone in our happiness.  We humans actually want empathy and treasure empathy so much that we will often imagine the next time that we hope to get some. The last time that you had a joy or a sorrow or a frustration, and found yourself inwardly saying, “I can’t wait to tell so and so,” you were actually imagining getting some empathy. You are alone, but imagining the next time when someone will understand and feel something about what you are going through. Your boss was a complete jerk; you experienced it alone; and then you took the edge off your frustration by imagining telling your best friend, and having you both marvel at what a complete jerk that guy is. You are fantasizing about empathy, in a good way.  Even in the moment, before your friend knows anything about your boss’s latest jerkish behavior, the fantasy of their being outraged on your behalf feels really good. Empathy is such great stuff that we actually fantasize about getting some.

I Have To Let Myself Feel What You Feel

Empathy is all about me feeling some of what you are feeling, until you can feel that I'm feeling something with you.  But am I willing and able to feel something with you?  When will I succeed at that, and when will I fail?   

I'll fail if I am too tangled up with my own emotions.  Let's say we just got home.  You are feeling bad, but haven't told me yet.  Now imagine that I am stressed out.  My day is heavily on my mind; I'm trying to figure out something for tomorrow; and I'm just tired.  You are giving off clues that you aren't doing so great, perhaps with the stoop of your shoulders, or a sigh, or the fact that you are more quiet than usual.  Don't I know you well enough to know what those things mean?  But I'm all caught up in my own stuff, my own stress, my own emotion, my own fatigue.  You need something from me, and I'm missing every single clue.  For me to do proper empathy, I would have to make room in my mind, and make room in my emotions, to hold you in mind and to feel some of what you are feeling.  If I fail at empathy right then, it isn't necessarily because I suck at empathy.  It may be that I have no room left for it right now, no bandwidth left for it, until I have cleared out some of my own stuff.  That means that empathy, and failures of empathy, are partly a matter of timing.  All of us are better at empathy at some moments, and worse at other moments. 

And even in a good moment, our defenses can get in the way.  If you are feeling bad, I have to be willing to feel bad with you.  If you are feeling confused or helpless, I have to be willing to feel those things with you.  If you are in a dark place, I need to be willing to climb into a dark place with you.  Basically, I need to be "willing to go there."  This is tricky.  Some people are better at going into dark places than others, and any of us might be more able to do that at some times than others. 

And then there is the question of "male defenses." 

Do Men Suck At Empathy?


No, wait. There is more to it than that.

Men tend to do fine at joining you in your happiness, your enthusiasm, or your anger.  We tend to be a little more reluctant to join you in your sadness, your fear, your confusion, or your helplessness.  After all, to a greater or lesser degree, we men were socialized to be manly.  For conventional gender roles, being sad or confused aren't manly ways to be. 

Let me refer you to my article on male defenses against vulnerability.

The heart of the matter is that men typically grow up being socialized not to be vulnerable, and that often gets in the way of men simply being sad with someone else who is sad. The more useful answer is that some men are much better at empathy than others, and that fortunately empathy is something that one can get better at with practice.  The basic lesson for men is, allow yourself to go there.  Allow yourself to be sad or scared with your loved one.  Avoid the temptation to flee to higher ground by giving advice or by telling your loved one why they shouldn't feel that way. 

Empathy Involves A Temporary Joining Or Merging Of Me And You

The experience of empathy can and should feel as if two people are going from being separate to joining with each other. A moment ago we were each going through our own experience separately, and now I am joining you in your experience. I stop thinking about my experience, and I imagine yours; I feel some of what you are feeling; I show you that I get what you are going through, and I care. Compared to a few moments ago, we are now thinking about the same thing, feeling more or less the same as each other. I am now holding in mind what you have in mind; I am feeling a version of what you are feeling.  We are experiencing this thing together.  

What we have done is a kind of merging, a kind of joining. I am not you, but we are sharing an experience. This is simply another way of describing the magic of empathy. We went from a state of more separateness to one of more connection, and now we are sharing an experience. We are both feeling your sadness, or we are both feeling my joy.  Or we could be sharing any experience.  We could be sharing curiosity and interest. “I read this great article; it was really interesting.” “Wow, that is really interesting.”

What I am getting at with this description is the idea that there in moments of strong empathy two people feel less separate and more merged, more joined, more as if we are sharing an experience and a set of perceptions. Those moments are precious. And they are also temporary.  As much as we treasure the moments of closeness and shared experience, before long one of us has to do some work, or get some sleep.  So, it is natural that these moments come and go. What we want is for a couple to get good at making them happen.

How to Get Better At Empathy

Let me offer a roadmap for improving empathy skills, improving the chances that you will have empathic moments and connected moments with those you love.

  • Empathy is all about noticing someone's emotions.  But one problem is that lots of us, and especially lots of men, tend to tune out our own emotions.  Lots of us have learned to ignore our emotions, suck it up, and get on with the job that needs to be done.  That can work well for getting jobs done.  But later, after the job is over, many of us are still tuning our emotions out.  If you have your own emotions tuned out, you will probably have trouble tuning in to someone else's.  So, getting better at empathy includes getting more in tune with your own emotions.  If you feel like you could stand to get better at your emotional self awareness, make a practice of checking in with yourself about how you feel.  A few times a day, simply let yourself be aware of what you are feeling.  There is an emotion in there somewhere.  Just look for it. 

  • Practice paying attention to the emotional cues that your loved one gives off. Try to figure out how they feel before they tell you. When you see them, or when the two of you come back together after work, ask yourself, “how do I think they are feeling?” Look at their facial expression, their body language, their tone of voice. Can you tell how they are feeling before they tell you in words?

  • Ask how they are feeling. This can be the conventional question, “how are you doing?” Or “how was your day?” If they tell you anything that has any emotion in it, ask more about that.

  • If they didn’t really tell you the previous time you asked, ask again. The conventional response to the conventional how-are-you question is, “fine,” or “good,” or “OK.” If you get one of those answers, ask again. You can use some humor, or play it straight, but asking again tends to tell the other person, “no, really, I want to know.” You might try, “really? How fine are you, exactly?”  Or, “would that be the good version of fine, or the more mediocre version of fine?”

  • Put aside what you are doing, and give them your full attention. Empathy is about holding someone else in your mind, trying to understand what they are feeling, and trying to convey that understanding back to them. This is not a time for multi-tasking. It can’t be done properly while texting, or while reading the news. Even if one of you just got home, and there isn’t much time right now, try to give this your full attention for at least 30 seconds. 30 seconds of connection is good. If there is something important going on, you can find more time to connect later as well.

  • Do the classic empathy exercise: Given what they just told you, try to imagine how you would feel if you were in that spot. Your goal here is to actually feel something. Unless they just told you something so bland that you can’t imagine anyone feeling anything at all about it, try to imagine yourself in their spot, and try to feel something.

  • Share with your loved one what you just felt. In the look on your face and in the tone of your voice, they should feel that you are feeling something. If they are happy, they should feel that you are happy for them. If they are sad, they should feel your sadness. If they are anxious or frustrated, they should feel that you are feeling something on their behalf, that you are in this with them, that their feelings stir up feelings in you.

  • Put the whole thing into words, with emotion in your voice and on your face. This doesn’t need to be complicated. If you say, with feeling, “that’s really great,” or “wow, that really sucks,” your loved one will feel that you get it, and that you are in there with them.

  • Practice telling them how you feel. The suggestions above are all about getting your loved one to tell you how they feel, and about showing them that you get it, and that you have feelings in response. But also practice the other side of the process. Give them the chance to share with you how you feel. When they ask how you are, tell them.  Don't tell them you are fine.  Tell them you are worn out and pissed off.  Tell them you had a good day, and you are happy to see them.  Tell them you are worried or frustrated or contented or grumpy.  They want to know you, to be close to you.  Don't keep them at a distance with the same "fine" that you would give to the bank teller. 

  • Instead of asking how they are, ask, “what made you feel something today?” If they ask you how you are, answer a different question. Tell them about what made you feel something today.

  • Try asking “Rose, Thorn, and Bud.”   This exercise involves asking, what was the best part of your day, the worst part of your day, and the part that has some potential for the future.

We all spend too much of our time with our defenses up.  It is a habit that we use even around someone we love. To get better at empathy with your loved one, practice asking questions or answering questions in a way that gets around the defenses and shares something from the heart.  

Failures of Empathy

Empathy is great stuff, and many of us are wishing that would could receive more empathy, especially from our spouses.  Since blaming the other person is always easy, the easy conclusion that lots of people come to is that their spouse is just no good at empathy.  It's true that some people are better at it than others, and it even seems to be true that, in general, women are more adept at it than men.  But if you start thinking about empathy as a talent that you either have or you don't, you'll give up too easily.  I find it more useful to talk about "failures of empathy."  Failures of empathy are times when something goes wrong.  Let me say a bit about the times when empathy goes wrong, and then turn that into a roadmap for how empathy can go right more often.

Here are some of the ways that empathy can fail:

If I'm Feeling Bad When You Are Feeling Bad

As I mentioned above, if I am stressed, or hurting, or preoccupied with something inside myself, it will be hard for me to ignore the noise of what is going on inside of me and pay attention to what is going on inside of you.  Sometimes you can get past this problem just by sending a clearer signal, and being louder about what you need.  "Hey, I had a really crappy day; I could use some sympathy tonight."  Other times the person may be just too tangled up with their own stuff to manage much empathy right now.  We hope that state is temporary. 

If I'm Defeated By A Situation I've Heard About Too Many Times

So, you had a terrible day with your boss.  But you are always having terrible days with your boss, ever since you took this stupid job five years ago.  You've told me a million times, and I have nothing new to say, and I am tired of thinking about your stupid boss.  There is a real dilemma here, because you are still living in the situation, and feeling bad about it all the time.  If I ask, "how are you," the genuine answer is that you are feeling bad about your boss again, just like yesterday.  Joining you in your experience means joining you in feeling endlessly, hopelessly stuck in exactly the same spot.  No wonder I don't want to join you.  Even if I can't think of anything new to say, I can still say, "I'm really sorry.  I'm really sorry you have to go through that." 

This situation can come up with any chronic problem.  It could be a chronic health problem, or a chronic emotional struggle, like depression, or a chronically painful relationship, like if dealing with your sister always leaves you feeling bad.  You could say that it is a gift of empathy to keep joining someone in a painful situation that never seems to get any better. 

If I Underplay My Feelings, Trying Not To Be A Whiner Or A Burden

If I'm not really sure that you want to take care of me, I may not send any signals that I need some care.  Again, both men and women do this, but men probably do it more.  I want to be strong.  I don't want to be a downer.  So I don't show you very much of what I am feeling, but then I'm disappointed when it doesn't really register and you don't really "get it."  This can be the point where I blame you for not having "enough empathy."  You must be really clueless for not figuring out what I need here.  Just because I seem OK, you take that at face value and go on about your business?  Clearly the problem here is you. 

As you can tell, what is needed here is for me to stop expecting you to just sense what is going on with me, and instead to actually tell you what's up with me.  But that runs into the classic dilemma, that if I tell you what I need and I still don't get it, it hurts even more.  Probably better to just keep my guard up.

If You Have Some Struggle That I Just Can't Relate To

People are different, and you might feel bad about something that just doesn't make any sense to me.  Let's say you run anxious and I don’t. You’re worried about that? And that? And that too? I try to put myself in your shoes, to join you in your experience, but I come up with – next to nothing. I’m still just not worried about that. I just wish you’d stop worrying. And you can tell that my empathy isn’t there, so you stop telling me about it.  And now we are more distant, and we don't know what to do with this part of our experience, because our wiring in this area is just so different. 

If We Are In A Vicious Circle, And Now We Both Keep Our Guards Up

Relationships are prone to virtuous circles, and vicious circles.  At our best, your kindness inspires my kindness, which inspires more of yours, and then more of mine.  At our worst, I pull away and put my guard up, and then you feel rejected and pull away, and then I withdraw some more.  Empathy involves vulnerability, letting my guard down, showing you what's going on in me, and trying to join you in what's going on in you.  When couples are doing badly with each other, they can get into a cycle of chronic failures of empathy. Both have their guards up, and both are feeling lonely, but not feeling safe to reach out.  Empathy works properly when two people feel safe with each other, and able to be vulnerable with each other.  The good news is that it is possible to reverse this kind of vicious circle.  To do that, you first have to realize that you are in one.  Then you have to swim against the current, as it were, by trying to let your guard down when you don't feel entirely safe.  This can work well when both parties agree that this is the spot they are in, and then both agree to try to be kinder and more vulnerable at the same time. 


Copyright 2020, Paul Hutchinson, Ph.D.

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