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The Problem with Empathy

Have you ever had someone accuse you of inauthenticity or manipulation when offering empathy?  You might have been confused and distressed because you really do care about the other person and want to build connection.  However, if other needs were more alive for you than your desire to contribute by offering empathy, empathy wasn't authentic and the other person could sense that something was missing or off about the interaction.

If you have cultivated the ability to offer empathy, you have noticed that others are often willing to receive empathy in a given conversation without asking about what's alive for you.  Probably this is because many people are running an empathy deficit.  So, they are eager to soak up your rare and precious offering of empathy.  

You may then realize that you can hide out behind empathy.  That is, you can create some level of connection while revealing very little about yourself.  This may be fine for a passing interaction, but in long term relationships the lack of mutuality leads to difficulty.

When you hide behind empathy or offer empathy with your own agenda in mind; of course it's not really empathy, but rather a facade of empathy.  You know all the right words to say so it sounds like empathy, but really you are just waiting for your chance to move the conversation towards meeting your own needs.  

While this may sound like outright manipulation, it is likely more murky and confusing than that.  On the one hand you really do care about the other person and you know empathy is one way to show caring.  On the other hand, you know important needs are up for you, but you're fearful of sharing them.  You fear not being heard or worse, a strong reaction in the other.  Empathy then becomes a strategy for testing and warming the waters of connection rather than a true offering of empathy.  In other words, empathy becomes a strategy to meet your own needs for safety, predictability, and harmony.

Realizing that you are not willing to offer your own vulnerable expression until there is safety, predictability, and harmony is an empowering realization.  Usually, strategies to meet these needs are enacted unconsciously and often unsuccessfully.  Becoming conscious of these needs opens the door to authenticity and creativity in meeting them.

Setting up a conversation in a way that feels safe to you is pretty simple, but perhaps not very common.  Here are some simple things to consider saying or doing:

  • Set a time in which both of you are rested and resourced

  • Choose a time and space in which you won't be interrupted

  • Ask:  "Hey, I want to check in about our conversation on Saturday evening when we were out to dinner with your mom.  Are you interested in hearing what came up for me there?"

  • Ask:  "I want to share some feelings and needs regarding our interaction last night.  I want to reassure you that my intention is to connect not to blame or find fault.  Are you willing to listen?"

  • Ask:  "I want share what's up for me about ….  Are able to hear me without reactivity right now or does it feel tender for you?"

  • Say & Ask:  "I want to express my feelings and values regarding …..  Are you willing to hear me and reflect back what you're understanding me to say?"

These are very direct approaches to communication so it can feel vulnerable and scary because you don't know if you can trust the other person to be honest or self-aware.  Perhaps, you can begin by engaging this level of directness for relationships you really trust, at first, while building your confidence.

If you find yourself using empathy to hide behind or meet needs indirectly, there are some baby steps that can help you change this behavior.  First, set your intention to notice the ratio of offering empathy and your own honest sharing in a few key relationships.

Second, choose one or two relationships in which you can set the intention to share a little bit more than usual in each interaction.  Reflect on these interactions later noting your experience.

Choose a trusted relationship in which you could explicitly state your intention to share more of your experience with the other person and create a more mutual relationship.


Take a moment now to identify 3 key relationships in which you would like to create more mutuality.  Set your intention to notice how much you share in those interactions in the coming week.


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1 Response

  1. Sep 23, 2017

    What a refreshing piece. To start, I like how you say "cultivating empathy." I am weary of people who think they have some special corner on the empathy market. They think they are gifted "empaths." If I mention that anyone can work on being empathic, I am looked at like I might be from outer space.

    I had an acquaintance/friend email me that she had discovered she was an empath. My dog had just died and she told me she was peeking in to the other realm to let me know what my dog preferred as end rites, if that was OK with me and it was not. She is also an "animal intuitive." I did not ask for this. She did not know me dog or my partner. She told me to bury this big dog in the yard under flowers because she liked flowers. I never would have told this to my partner, who wanted her cremated, so he could scatter her ashes where they hiked. Honestly, people who make these claims often suffer from incredibly bad boundaries and wild imaginings. Our dog was big, the ground rock hard, she didn't care about flowers and it was a very personal matter.

    I have another acquaintance, claiming she is a newly discovered empath. She claims to notice every little thing about you and knows how you are feeling in a very deep way. Yikes. Scary made-up shit from more wild imaginings -- she hears someone coming down the hall at my work and it is a spirit, not the attorney going to work.

    I am so sick of this misguided, ego-tripping empath thing. I hope it goes away soon.

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