Empathy is the new black.
Schools are teaching empathy to children. Leaders are encouraged to display EQ as much as IQ. Many books explore building empathy. It’s a core coaching skill. Developmental psychiatrists and psychologists are exploring the roots of empathy in animals and the deep nature of its place in our humanity. True empathy is good. Deeply human.
To be clear empathy, as opposed to sympathy, could be described as feeling with someone, rather than feeling for someone. “I feel your anguish” as opposed to “I am sorry you’re hurting”.
It is standing in their shoes to experience their emotions.
But empathy requires thoughts as well as feelings. It is also a two person activity. So to be truly empathetic we need to balance thought and emotion as well as balance self and other. Recognising and sharing in someone else’s complex emotional state is in itself a complex inner experience, and it requires considerable self awareness and control to walk that line, be useful, be safe, keep them safe.
Otherwise empathy becomes a trap.
We can feel we are being held hostage by the other person’s feelings. Imprisoned in our own thought / feeling response. Balance requires us to have the self awareness and the dexterity and subtlety to pay attention to another’s needs whilst not sacrificing our own needs. We need to be able to recognise what is our stuff and what belongs to the person we are empathising with. Also what emerges in the soup of the empathetic interaction. What needs to stay in the soup, neither theirs nor ours.
Putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes is something the receiver can find deeply rewarding. Addictive even. That puts the onus on us to know when to extract ourselves from their shoes. And how.
Equally, overly empathic people may lose the ability to know what they want or need. They may have a diminished ability to make decisions in their own best interest, experience physical and psychological exhaustion from deflecting their own feelings.
We need to be able to stand in our own shoes too.