Why We Don’t Need More Empathy in Our Relationships
The gold standard of any true relationship, we believe, is that people “understand” one another and what the other person is going through, and declare as much. I am afraid that, as someone who works with relationships from bedrooms (couples) to boardrooms (companies) and has dedicated her life to relational science, this is what breaks relationships and not something that strengthens them. Yes, you heard that right!
I know you might be reading this and thinking, What? How is this going to help the already divided world around us? Bear with me and if by the end of this post, you are not convinced that over-empathizing is one of the reasons behind the failure of many relationships around you, and a lot of fallouts in our world in general, then you can continue with what the common belief of the society offers you.
Empathy involves entering into another person’s experience and feeling their feelings as if they were our own. We have this survival mechanism to assess our safety and regulate ourselves—emotionally, cognitively, physically, and neuropsychologically—by synching into our caregivers’ state of feeling.
For example, when a caregiver (let’s say a mother) picks up a screaming infant, holds him close, and whispers reassurances, she helps the infant regulate his distress with her own body. When she is calm, he becomes calm. Over time, co‑regulation teaches the infant self-regulation. On the other hand, a child can use her innate ability to tune in and empathize with her caregiver to assess her safety: Is this person going to give me what I need for my survival at this moment in time?
As we mature, another, more complex mechanism starts developing: the capacity, attitude, and skills that many of our research participants called “compassion.”
We conducted research with a sample of 159 representative U.S. couples that identified as thriving in their relationships, and we found that couples that practiced mutual compassion (among other factors) exhibited the highest levels of overall relationship satisfaction and general well-being—so, clearly, this is important. But what exactly is compassion? The way that I would like to define it is that it is the capacity to show up fully for a partner without making it about yourself.
Without compassion, empathy could lead to disconnect rather than a deeper connection. Imagine this: If you are angry, then I am angry too. If you are sad, then I am sad too—and sometimes, I take on so much of your emotions and feelings that I own it even more than you and take away any chance that you might have to feel, process, or release any of your own emotions and feelings.
Now look at it through the lens of compassion: If you are angry and want me to be there for you while you process your feelings (with no judgment or offering of solutions), to have someone else witness your emotions in a safe way (not trying to hush you, get you out of it, or join you in it), I can do that without making it about myself. This is the principle behind many helping professions and how we sustain our own cognitive and emotional capacities without becoming burnt out while trying to be there for others.
So we can say that empathy by definition is when you feel with someone else. Compassion, on the other hand, is a more complex and mature mechanism based on a set of cognitive abilities and skills. I would like to think of it as when you feel for the person. So one can think of it this way: While empathy is when you feel with the other for your own sake (relating, regulating, keeping safe), compassion is feeling for the other without making it about yourself, which gives you the ability to be there for them the way they need you to be.
Think of the last time that you felt misunderstood, not seen, dismissed, or unheard as you tried to share something with your partner, friend, co-worker, boss, child, mother, or anyone else in a relational space with you. Perhaps you were hurt, exhausted, angry, disturbed, or overjoyed by an achievement and you wanted to share it with that person and they said something like: I completely know what you mean, or I totally get it; one time that also happened to me and it felt like…, or I don’t know why you feel this way; when it happened to me I didn’t let it get to me, or What’s the big deal? I have been there and I understand where you are coming from but… Any variation of these statements leave you cold and unseen.
There is room for relating, commiseration, and empathy for sure, but they cannot be the default in any relational space because empathy makes it harder for someone to be there for you as it does not allow for any space. When the other person becomes one with you, it doesn’t allow for their individual expressions and experiences of feelings because if they cannot feel it the way you do, then they cannot be there for you. Maintaining a separate sense of self, and a separate emotional reality, is the key distinguishing feature between compassion and empathy.
If empathy is feeling with someone, compassion is feeling for someone. As the Golden Rule goes Do unto others as you would have them do unto you, the Platinum Rule of relationships may go something more like this: Do to others the way they want to be treated.
Excerpted and adapted from Love by design: 6 ingredients to build lifetime of love.