Let’s start with one simple observation: No one, not anyone, can feel your pain! Not now. Not ever!
Empathy, which is often defined as the ability to feel what someone else feels, is one of the great myths of human relationships. Also, it’s highly overrated. I can create pain that might approximate your pain, but that’s my pain, not yours. (I am not in your skin.) And when I do that, I focus on myself, thus, becoming self-absorbed rather than helping you. Empathy is self-absorption mislabeled. You’re upset that your relationship ended. So I put my arm around you, think about how I felt when one of my relationships ended, and re-create that unhappiness. When I conjure up pain to mimic or mirror what I hypothesize you are feeling, I then start to focus on myself and the feelings I just created for myself inside. In addition to being self-absorbed, I am now becoming self-consumed. My intention: to be close to you and show you I understand. Sounds kind and caring – yes? Actually, it’s really focusing on myself and my own emotions rather than being fully available to you. By contrast, when I am comfortable inside – emotionally pain free – I am far more available to offer real help. Being happy and present, choosing to listen carefully, asking helpful questions when you’re in pain, I can give you truckloads more support than if I were lost in the distracting fantasy of empathy.
In class yesterday, some students argued for the benefits of feeling bad when someone else feels bad: “It’s natural.” “It shows we care.”
Try this on for size:
1) It’s not natural, just a choice.
2) It doesn’t show we care; it shows we can create unhappiness as easily as anyone else in the room.
Bottom line: One unhappy person plus one unhappy, “empathetic” person equals two unhappy people in the same room. Do we join or break the cycle?