Of all the interpersonal skills we can imagine, empathy is surely one of the most important. Empathy may be more difficult for some than for others. Maybe some are constitutionally disadvantaged from the start in not being highly tuned-in to the emotional state of others. Maybe some have not been raised with good role models who demonstrated effective empathy skills so they never witnessed and learned the art. In either case, it is possible to improve our ability to empathize with the feelings of others. One of the biggest obstacles in the way of practicing empathy, however, is the fear of doing so. 

What is empathy?

To empathize is to understand, accept and respect the emotional experience of another. This is not merely an intellectual exercise for the person empathizing; it has an emotional component as well. Yet it does not mean that we necessarily feel the same feelings as the other. If a child falls and cries, we don’t feel the same pain or fear as the child, but we might feel sadness, concern and compassion. We care about the other person’s pain. The phrases, “I feel for you” or “My heart goes out to you” are fitting.

How do I fear thee? Let me count the ways

Sometimes we actively resist empathizing because of our fears. What could possibly be dangerous about empathizing with another? Perhaps nothing really, but based on some false beliefs about what empathy means, we can regard it to be dangerous nonetheless. 

Here are some common false beliefs, or myths, that cause us to fear empathizing:

Myth 1: “To empathize with someone who’s done a terrible thing is to condone or endorse that behavior.” Not so. If you believe someone did something wrong on a legal, moral or ethical level, you have the right to maintain that position. Appreciating the emotional circumstances around another person’s choices does not mean that we can’t still hold them accountable.

Myth 2: “How can I empathize with others if I completely disagree with what they think or believe?” It is possible to empathize with others’ feelings and positions yet disagree with their thoughts and beliefs at the same time. You may not share certain religious or political beliefs with others, but you can still see their perspectives and not judge them for being different.

Myth 3: “If I empathize with this person, then it becomes my problem and I’ll have to fix it.” Yes, we can turn a blind eye and a cold heart to the suffering of others in order to not feel guilty and get involved in helping. Empathy does not force us to try to solve all problems on the practical level. But it does give us the opportunity to choose to help where we can.

Myth 4: “Empathizing with people’s emotions will make me look weak, or soft, and that’s not me.” Quite the opposite. Empathy is a strength, a skill and an art and it takes courage to do it. Refusing to empathize because of fears which are based on false beliefs is less courageous.

Myth 5: “Empathy doesn’t change the facts or the circumstances so it’s useless; there’s no point.” Well, if you were stranded on a desert island and received a message in a bottle saying, “We know that you are there alone and in need of help,” would you not put that blessed bottle and its miracle message on an altar in your palm leaf tent and worship it day and night?

Empathy tells us that we are seen and respected as human beings despite our flaws and imperfections. It tells us that our feelings are acceptable even when our behaviors may not be. It tells us that we are not above or below the next person. We all struggle with the same set of emotions and we all make mistakes. Empathy is quite safe and highly recommended.

Art Frenz, Ph.D.

Photo by Guiherme Stecanella on Unsplash 

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Psychological Fitness

“Psychological Fitness” is my monthly column featured in the Binghamton, NY Press & Sun Bulletin since 2004. This page highlights articles, or adaptations thereof, from that column.