“When you hurt, I hurt.” Does this adage sound familiar? No doubt, it stems from a benevolent place, but it inherently reinforces poor boundaries and misses the heart of empathy entirely.
Instead of joining in on someone else’s experience (which is not entirely possible because we do not share the exact same experiences), empathy is more akin to “You’re hurt by this.”
Empathy recognizes the feelings in each experience, names them, and honors them by listening intently with an “as if” quality — listening to another person as if this situation were their own but without making it their own. Empathy honors another person’s experience without trying to take it from them by adding on, comparing, rescuing or minimizing. In short, empathy requires boundaries.
Empathy is not sympathy: Empathy is often misunderstood for sympathy. By definition, sympathy is expressing pity or sadness for someone else’s situation or misfortune. Furthermore, sympathy seems to have an unspoken “Thank goodness that didn’t happen to me” undertone by association.
Although it is appropriate to express sympathy in reference to a person’s genuine loss, sympathy misses the heart of empathy because it does not approach another’s experience with an “as if” quality. Offering “I’m sorry you’re in pain” often feels dismissive and does not foster the core conditions that encourage further discourse.
Empathy is not rescuing someone from his or her experience: “If I could, I would fix it for you.” As human beings, prosocial behavior dictates that we care for others. In learning of others’ strife or struggles, there is an inherent temptation to “fix” or help even when it is not necessary.
I work in an elementary school as a school counselor. I can confirm with certainty that parents spend so much time trying to help their children (for example, by bringing forgotten homework or a jacket in case their child gets cold) that they often rob these students of the opportunity to feel and learn. In the case of the forgotten homework, students are more likely to remember to turn it in on time in the future if they are allowed to feel the discomfort of not having it once. Repeatedly rescuing someone from their experience prevents the processes of acceptance, coping and moving on that are required to fully feel an experience.
Finally, rescuing someone from their experience rather than allowing them to experience natural consequences is the picture of poor boundary setting. Empathy allows for the full and complete exploration of thoughts, feelings and behaviors, with no intent to short-circuit the process simply because we cannot tolerate someone else’s pain.
Empathy does not minimize someone’s experience: Author and researcher Brené Brown maintains that no empathic response begins with “at least.” For example, if a friend discloses that they just received a cancer diagnosis, the temptation might be to immediately highlight the good in the situation rather than holding space for their feelings and experiences toward their current situation. (“At least you have a great doctor! At least you’re able to afford the health care!”)
There is certainly a time and a place to exercise positive cognition to influence feelings and subsequent behavior. It is essential to remember, however, that active listening is just that — listening, not adding on (“Let me tell you about my aunt who had cancer”) or minimizing (“At least …”). Empathy does not absorb or modify the worries, problems, sadness or experiences of others. Empathy is standing still inside a moment, caring for another and sharing their experience — without carrying their load exclusively.
The science of empathy
Research suggests that mirror neurons allow us to grasp the message of and accurately respond to others. These neurons help us understand the feelings of others more accurately and approximate their experience. For example, if I see someone laughing, my brain is primed to join in alongside them, noticing the crinkle around their eyes and the upturned corners of the mouth that indicate a genuine smile.
As social creatures, we are constantly scanning one another for biological markers associated with feelings. While mirror neurons help us adjust to another’s feelings, it is important to note that, if left unchecked, we can “take on” or linger in someone else’s feelings.
The need for boundaries
As counselor clinicians, it is necessary for us to maintain boundaries to center the work around the client’s needs, to monitor for transference and countertransference, to attune to our worldview and how it affects the way we work with clients, to uphold ethics and to prevent compassion fatigue.
One of my favorite professors once mused that in his work with clients confronting substance use disorders, he cared about his clients deeply, but not so much that he was unable to continue to do his job. At first, I was unclear about the meaning of his statement. Now I understand that his declaration of boundaries allowed him to recognize the importance of his work without absorbing his clients’ challenges as his own to the point of burnout.
Empathy intersects boundaries in accurately understanding the experience of another without taking it on as our own. Enter the importance of self-care.
Author Glennon Doyle suggests, “Pain is just a traveling professor. When pain knocks on the door — wise ones breathe deep and say, ‘Come in. Sit down with me. And don’t leave until you’ve taught me what I need to know.’”
Empathy does not require pain or sorrow to be present. Rather, empathy is present whenever two individuals are together. In the fine-tuning of our responses to the thoughts, feelings and experiences of others, we are more in tune with ourselves and can better serve our clients.
Laura Sladky is a licensed professional counselor intern and licensed chemical dependency counselor who currently works as a school counselor in Dallas, Texas. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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