Sympathy, Empathy, and Caring (Part Three of Three): False Empathy and Authentic Caring

Guest Post by Nina LaLumia

In relation to ‘sympathy,’ the word ‘empathy’ is fairly new. It was introduced into English in the late 1800s and has recently grown in popularity, it seems to me, for two reasons. First, ‘sympathy’ lost the richness it had in Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature (1738) and has come to be equated with ‘pity.’ Indeed, today the word is most commonly used in “sympathy cards” that people send to comfort those who have lost a loved one. So another word is needed to play the broader role that ‘sympathy’ used to play.

Second, ‘empathy’ was used to introduce a concept and therapeutic technique in psychology. As such, it was a translation of the German word Einfühlung, which means “feeling oneself into something.” Here’s a quotation from The Journal of Clinical Psychology (1946): a person-to-person “regard for the client is characterised (ideally) by the understanding of empathy without the erratic quality of identification or the supportiveness of sympathy.”

The important thing to notice here is how ‘empathy’ is compared with ‘identification’ on the one hand and with ‘sympathy’ on the other. A therapist should not identify with the client or patient, since this would mean going along for the rollercoaster ride of the client’s emotions. If a person seeking therapy shares an experience of suffering, it won’t help if the therapist bursts into tears.

On the other hand, a therapist should NOT show “the supportiveness of sympathy.” A therapist should not express pity for the client or say things like, “Oh, you poor dear, I’m so sorry you had to go through that.” Also, a therapist should NOT show support for every goal the client aims for. Most obviously, if a client expresses the desire to kill someone, the therapist should not help the client work out a plan to commit murder.

So the idea behind ‘empathy’ as a term in clinical psychology is that the therapist should listen attentively and show that he or she has some understanding of what the client is going through. This is often done by echoing or by offering summaries, such as: “I can see that you were deeply hurt by that.” The goal is for the patient to feel: “Another human being has heard and is trying to understand what I’m feeling, what I’m going through, in a non-judgemental way; so I’m no longer alone in this.” This opens the door for trust, for further communication and eventually the working-out of a plan for coping with the situation as effectively as possible.

To some extent, Brené Brown successfully explains this therapeutic technique in her video on empathy. But her video is also misleading: it suggests that the best thing we can do is “feel ourselves into” the suffering of others. And this is false. Empathy as Brené Brown explains it might move us to react emotionally and, without any rational assessment, do whatever first comes to mind in order to alleviate the person’s suffering in the short term. To give an obvious example: If an alcoholic is suffering withdrawal symptoms, the best response is NOT to give them a bottle of vodka.

More generally, if we enable people to become dependent (or more dependent) on some drug or some other external source of support, we are not really helping them. Here’s another example: We are not really helping people who can work if we enable them to remain unemployed.

So empathy is not a reliable guide for authentic caring. We care for someone authentically when we lend what support we can to empower that person. As the great philosopher Maimonides said: “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” The general point is: Care authentically by helping people acquire the skills and resources they need in order to take of themselves and eventually contribute to the community in which they live. People who are successful at fishing catch enough fish to feed themselves and their families by selling fish for other people to eat. Authentic caring is good for the individual and good for the community. Authentic caring is also limited: we stop giving if giving any more will decrease our own power.

By contrast, reacting thoughtlessly out of false empathy may be bad in two ways. First, it is bad for people if we enable them to become dependent. It’s bad for them because we reduce their chances of experiencing the joy of living out of their own power and making a contribution. Second, enabling people to become dependent is bad for our society. If one more person becomes dependent, we lose the opportunity to benefit from that person’s contributions. Also, if one more person becomes dependent, we have to spend resources to support them—resources of wealth, time, energy and intelligence that could be better spent elsewhere.

Finally, a society that encourages its members to become more and more dependent is a sick society. It keeps losing potential contributors, and it keeps wasting its resources. Such a community grows more and more vulnerable to internal collapse and to external attack—to being overrun by healthier societies. A healthier society is made up of members who are better contributors because they live more fully out of their own power and because their lively sense of sympathy motivates them to care authentically.

Sympathy, Empathy, and Caring (Part 1 of 3): A Proper Understanding of Sympathy

Guest Post by Nina LaLumia


A family of words and their history

The word ‘sympathy’ has its roots in Ancient Greek. The prefix sym- means “with” or “together,” as in sym-phony: a collection that makes sounds together, producing harmony or music. Pathy refers to suffering or undergoing something and being affected emotionally. Think of pathology: the study of things that people suffer: diseases. So at root, sympathy is being affected by the condition of another living being with an emotion that corresponds to that being’s condition—or at least to our perception of it. Use of this word with this meaning in English goes back as far as the 1600s. In 1757, Edmund Burke wrote: “Sympathy must be considered as a sort of substitution, by which we are put into the place of another man, and affected in a good measure as he is affected.”

Everyone is familiar with the difference between being active and being passive: it’s the difference between your doing something and having something done to you. The nouns are ‘agent’ (a person who does something) and ‘patient’ (a person to whom something happens). There are also the abstract nouns ‘action’ and ‘passion’ (making something happen and having something happen to you). Similarly, we can affect things or be affected by them.

To fall in love is a passionate affair: something happens to you—something that can be wonderful and also painful. To feel affection for someone is also to be affected—to open the door and allow things to come in. If I open the door and allow myself to feel affection for Laura, Laura now matters to me in a new way. I’m now open (and vulnerable as well) to being affected emotionally by what Laura says and does, and to being affected by what happens to her. If something good happens in Laura’s life, I feel good about it; if something bad happens, I feel bad about it—it’s painful for me.

The philosophical theory of David Hume (1711-76)

In A Treatise of Human Nature, David Hume defines sympathy as the capacity to be affected emotionally by what happens to a person for whom we feel affection—both the good and the bad. Hume was studying the mind (doing psychology) from the modern scientific point of view. So for him, sympathy is not some magical affinity or “energy.” It happens through the subconscious observation of facial expressions, tone of voice, gesture and posture. In other words, sympathy happens through the medium of non-verbal communication. (I use the word ‘subconscious’ to suggest that these observations are below the surface of conscious awareness. We can notice them if we make the effort, but usually we don’t. Usually, we simply feel their effect.)

Sympathy of this kind is mainly interpersonal and face-to-face, and it requires that the two people involved already have a personal connection. But we can also feel sympathy through other media. (‘Media’ is the plural of ‘medium.’ We use the expression ‘the media’ to talk about the various ways or means by which we send messages.) Hume talks about the theatre; we could also talk about movies, works of fiction or poetry.

When you watch a scary movie, the normal thing to happen is that you yourself feel scared. Something is off (either with you or the movie) if you sit there unaffected, thinking something like, “Oh, if I were in that situation, I too would be scared,” or “I can understand why a person in that situation would feel fear.” There’s also something off if you don’t feel happy when Julia Roberts smiles. (If you don’t like Julia Roberts, think of someone whose smile you do find appealing.)

Whether it’s a good feeling or a bad one, happy or sad, we catch on to what someone else is feeling (or what they represent themselves as feeling) much more easily if we already have some sense of connection with him or her. And usually we develop a sense of connection with another person if they are appealing: if they appeal to us either because of their visible beauty or some beautiful character trait—their sense of humour, their courage, their loyalty as a friend, or something like that. So also, an artist has to create that sense of connection if we are to be moved by what happens to a fictional character in a movie or novel.

The last thing to be said here, so that we have a fair sketch of the whole picture, is that in general sympathy is not merely an emotional experience; it also moves us to do something. For example, adverts for charities that show children with dirty, tear-stained faces appeal to our sympathy and are designed so that we will be moved to donate some of our money. This kind of emotional response to the suffering of another living being is sometimes called “pity.”

This is usually what people nowadays think about when they hear the word ‘sympathy.’ But in the fuller picture that Hume offers, we can also be moved by good feelings. For example, if we feel affection for someone, we are usually moved to do good things for them: for example, to help them achieve their goals or to give them things they find pleasant.

The next two posts will discuss two aspects of sympathy in more detail. First, it is social and can be studied from a biological perspective—that is, it serves a function in relationships between people and in relationships between other social animals. Second, it is meant to move us—not only “move” us emotionally, but also literally move us to do something. What it should move us to do is to care authentically.

Guest Post by Nina Lalumia

At least since the time of Aristotle (the fourth century B. C.), the idea that there are four basic elements–earth, water, air and fire–has been an important theme in our culture. Aristotle himself used this idea to understand the physical world. He thought about the four elements much the same way that chemists today understand elements such as hydrogen and carbon. The basic idea is that underlying any change that we perceive there MUST be something that remains stable and the same. Physical change is understood as different mixtures, additions and subtractions of elements that do NOT change. Aristotle also understood the human body as composed of all four elements: earth because the body has solidity and we eat food that comes from the earth; water because we have blood, sweat and tears, and because we drink fluids; air because as long as we live we are constantly breathing air in and out, inhaling and exhaling; and fire because we are warm and seem to burn the food we eat.

But the four elements can also be understood in a psychological or spiritual manner. The thoughts of our mind are airy, because they can drift like a balloon to many different locations in space and both to the past and to the future. Still today we may call a person an “airhead” if their thoughts and words float all over the place like a balloon tossed about in the wind. In contrast, our body is relatively stable: it cannot travel in time (not yet, anyhow!), and it travels from place to place only gradually and with effort–certainly before the advent of modern methods of transportation. And we describe a person who is present and focused as being  “grounded.”

These symbols–air for the mind and its floating thoughts, earth for the relatively solid and stable body–are helpful for me in understanding a difficulty that I have. As a strongly empathetic person, I often feel invaded and overwhelmed by the thoughts and feelings of other people. I feel that I have very weak or porous boundaries. It sometimes feels like I live in a room that has no doors or windows that I can shut. I feel that I have no peace or privacy in which I might be able to give attention to my own thoughts and feelings.

I reckon that many empathetic or highly sensitive people (HSPs) have similar experiences. But I recently learned an important lesson from Caroline van Kimmenade, who produces the website thehappysensitive.com. This site offers many useful resources for understanding what it means to be a highly sensitive person, an empathetic person or an empath, and how to manage these abilities, these vulnerabilities, and live happily and productively. She also offers online coaching.

Caroline pointed out to me that in many cases I am the one who crosses boundaries into the space or territory of other people. The way I do this is by thinking: by trying to figure out what other people are thinking or feeling. My motivation for doing this is to avoid conflict: I’m always trying to please other people or at least avoid upsetting them. Then I adapt myself in order to act and be the way I think will please them.

The important realisation that I had is that, although I often feel invaded or controlled by other people, this particular phenomenon is something that I am responsible for. I don’t have to let my airy balloon thoughts float over into other people’s space or territory. I can bring my airy thoughts back down into my earthy body. Paradoxically, the best way for me to do this is to focus on my breathing. Yes, of course breathing involves air, but the activity of breathing in and out is the most noticeably constant activity of our body. In particular, normal healthy breathing involves the motion of our diaphragm, the complex muscular layer at the base of the rib cage. When we breathe in, it pushes down into a bowl shape, and we feel our belly expand. This muscular motion creates an empty space, a vacuum, in our chest cavity and draws air into the lungs. That’s the real work of breathing. Breathing out normally requires no effort: we simply relax the diaphragm, it comes back up, flattens out, and air easily flows out of the lungs.

So what I mean by “focusing on my breathing” is directing my attention to these activities of my body. When I intend to do this, for a while my airy thoughts still tend to float into different times (past and future) and different places (in particular, into other people’s spaces). But the basic technique of meditation is to notice when your thoughts float away, and gently draw them back to focus on your breathing. As far as topics go, the activity of breathing is not very interesting. This is a good thing, because eventually our thoughts settle down back into our body and rest there. For all intents and purposes, we stop thinking about anything at all. We remain aware, but are not thinking about anything in particular.

One obstacle to reaching this state of resting back into the earthy body is actually thinking about our breathing. For me, this takes the form of inner thoughts counting my breaths, giving them numbers, or an inner voice saying things like “In and out, in and out.” I think this is my mind’s way of resisting rest, of holding on to its own activity and independence. I have found a way to deal with this: I say simple words with a rocking, lullaby rhythm: Breathe deeply in and then starting on the next breath out: “La, la; La, la; La, la Loo, two, three, and…La, la; La, la; La, la Loo, two, three, and…” The first ‘La’ is a breath out, the second ‘la’ is a breath in, and so on for each pair of sing-song syllables.

My ten sing-song syllables play the role of what many practitioners of meditation call a “mantra.” The strategy in any case is to give the mind something fairly empty to chew on. Eventually, if all goes well, it calms down and we are simply breathing and simply aware, but not thinking about anything. The airy thought balloon has landed back in the earthy body.

After a fairly brief session of this kind of meditation, I can open my eyes and my mind again and see things more clearly. I can feel that I have needs and wants just as other people do. I grow more aware of my own feelings and can separate them from the feelings of others.

Now I am in a better position to put healthy boundaries in place: primarily by having the courage to say No to some things, and by saying Yes carefully, slowly–only after considering my current feelings and thoughts, and after considering the consequences of saying Yes. Am I truly ready and willing to accept the consequences of saying Yes–come what may? If I don’t take the time to consider such things, I am liable to say Yes only to please other people–or to do what I THINK will please them.

It is much healthier to talk with the person or people involved. Talking–real talking out loud–like breathing, is something we do with our bodies. Our vibrating vocal cords and the shaping motions of our mouth, tongue and teeth shape sound waves that set the eardrums of other people in motion, and so on.

I speak and the other listens; the other speaks and I listen. If all goes well, we can reach an agreement, a plan, a boundary that at the very least we both honestly can tolerate. It may get better than that, but we shouldn’t let it get worse.

These are things that I have learned about and am still finding difficult to put into practice. But when I do put them into practice, things go better.

* * * * * * * *

Notes on words

This sense of ‘grounded’ or ‘grounding’ arrived quite recently. The OED gives this quote from Allen Ginsberg in New Age Journal (1976): “Trungpa’s position was that ‘psychadelics’ are too trippy, whereas people need to be grounded; everything is uncertain enough as it is.” Trungpa was a teacher of Buddhist meditation.

‘Mantra’ comes from Sanskrit and was first based in Hinduism, where it meant the intention one has in mind when saying or doing something. ‘Manta’ and related Sanskrit words are the roots of our word ‘mind.’

(1) Introverts may experience overwhelm

Some introverts are highly sensitive persons. They may be sensitive to loud noises, bright lights, or large crowds. They may also be empathetic and sensitive to the feelings of other people around them. Their sensitivity may lead introverts to experience overwhelm, and then it may lead them to isolate themselves or seek solitude in some way. In other words, it may lead them to seek the comfort of The Cave—a dark, quiet place for rest and restoration…or for escape.


(2) Introduction to Dialectical Behaviour Therapy

It may be useful for introverts of this kind to learn something about Dialectical Behavior Therapy. This therapy was developed by the psychologist Marsha Linehan in the early 1990s. It aims to help people manage overwhelming emotions.

Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT) aims to teach radical acceptance of what has happened, what is…AND give us insight into the things we can change. That’s what the fancy word ‘dialectical’ means, like the word ‘dialogue’ that suggests a back-and-forth exchange between two people. ‘Dialectical’ in this context means a back-and-forth exchange, a balance and a tension, between acceptance AND change in our lives.

One point is important to add. If you have been mistreated in some way, acceptance does NOT mean that the behaviour of an abusive person is acceptable. Abusive behaviour is never acceptable. Nonetheless, it may be part of your reality, and you unfortunately have to learn how to cope with it. Acceptance here means that you cannot erase it from your past, no matter how much you might want to—no matter how much we wish you could. But what you can do, hopefully, is learn more effective ways of coping with it.

 (3) The Serenity Prayer and a Radical Acceptance poem

The basic message of Dialectical Behavior Therapy is much the same as the well-known Serenity Prayer:

Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

the courage to change the things I can,

and the wisdom to know the difference.

With a slightly different twist, here is my Radical Acceptance poem:

This is The World.

Let it be, because it IS.

Inspect it.

Learn to respect it.

I am a small but important part of the world.

What can I do NOW?

It’s important to think about the phrase, “I am part of The World.” If I am part of The World, both my body and personality are realities that to a large extent I have to accept, although I can also work to change them in certain respects. After all, we are living organisms that are constantly in the process of change, and we can do some things to direct this process.

(4) The courage to come out of isolation and back into the world

If we as introverts suffer from overwhelm, we may for a while escape into the comfort of The Cave. The Serenity Prayer, or my Radical Acceptance poem, may help you to calm down and return to The World…BOTH with the serenity to accept the things beyond your control AND with some new insights into the things you can change. You may for example have an insight into how you can better manage the things that overwhelm you. You are a small part of The World. But you are also important! Retreat when you have to, but then return to us with your gifts.