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The Paradox of Empathy

Empathy needs empathy. Why is it so difficult to find it when we need it?

How often did it happen to you that you saw someone upset and you automatically thought that the feeling of anger or sadness that the person was experiencing was directed at you or was because of you?

If this happens often, then this post might be of interest to you.

I need some empathy

Especially when we are going through a rough moment in our life, we really need someone who is capable of empathizing with us. Yet what happens? Often, people seem absurdly insensitive toward the chaos we are going through.

The more this happens, the less you would like to open up to others and reach out for others’ company. Bitterness and loneliness might creep into the place where you were craving exactly the opposite: an empathetic understanding, and if possible, compassion.

Under the microscope

Let’s look at what happens here through an example. You meet with your wife, and her face seems upset and angry. Instead of asking her, “What’s going on?” you feel responsible for that face and start feeling defensive and a little upset.

She doesn’t understand you. She doesn’t even ask how your day went. She just seems remote and acts cold toward you.

On her side, she also feels a little down and could use some empathy. So, now you are both looking for some empathetic understanding but instead you end up in a fight in which you get more distant from each other.

In feeling responsible for the sad face and upset feelings of your wife, you took away space from her that she needed to feel what she was going through. You became the protagonist of her feelings, and you gave those feelings a meaning that related to you. In this way, you tried to keep her away from her own life.

On the other hand, from your point of view, she is responsible for being distant and dismissive toward you. Hence, besides the problems that she had originally—for which she was feeling upset and sad—now she also has to deal with your wounds.

She no longer has time to feel herself, and you do not have time to feel yourself. You both crave empathy but you cannot extend empathy to each other because your lives and feelings are now confused with each other.

How can we receive empathy when we need it?

I think that everything we receive in life is an act of grace toward which we can feel gratitude. Life does not owe us anything and all that we have is a blessing, whether we are capable of seeing it or not. If we go blind toward what we have, it’s our loss, not life’s. Life tried to make us happy.

Hence, when it happens that we crave empathy and that wherever we turn people seem to be unempathetic and distant, we might try to exercise a clear view of the boundaries we occupy in our life and in the lives of those we expect empathy from. If the boundaries of our lives are not clear, it’s likely that we are invading the space of those close to us. The people from whom we demand empathy simply do not have time to stop and look at us because we did not give them time and space to do so. With our disappointment, we intruded into their space and took ownership, as well as responsibility, for what they feel. In fact, we act as if we are the protagonists of those feelings.

To break this vicious circle, we can try to stay within the boundaries of our life, and from there extend our empathy to others by simply asking, as in the example above: “What’s going on? Why are you so upset?”

If we manage to do that, two things might happen.

First, we might forget our life for a moment. For a moment, our ‘I’ is no longer everywhere but is left within the boundaries of our life, and for that moment, we’re taking care of another human being’s life

Second, it might happen that the other person can see us for who we are, and have managed to avoid projecting onto us their own problems. Accordingly, they might be able to extend some empathetic compassion toward us.

The Paradox of Empathy

If we are not capable of extending empathy toward ourselves but continue to demand empathy from others, we are rarely going to receive true empathy.

First, we need to confine our ego and our life within clear boundaries so that we know where we want to extend empathy from. Then, we need to see the lives of other people for what they are, independent of us, without stealing the ownership of their feelings, confusing our lives with theirs, or projecting our needs for validation onto their responses.

That would be a good start for a happier and more empathetic life!

More from Susi Ferrarello Ph.D.
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