Empathy: True Generosity of Spirit


The other is indispensable to my own existence,

as well as to my knowledge about myself.

- Jean-Paul Sartre

his I submit – there is no better experience for a human than to be chosen. When someone chooses us we feel seen, appreciated and wanted. A bond instantly forms between the chooser and the chosen. They want us and we want to be wanted. For a moment our loneliness eases and our fears wane.

I would further suggest that the best thing that a human can be chosen for is to be the focus of someone’s sincere attention and concern. When someone turns toward us, witnesses our current situation and takes the time to try to see what that may be like for us, we have been offered the platinum class of connectedness.

What I am describing is, of course, empathy.

When implemented fully, empathic attunement is a gift of profound generosity. To the extent we understand how remarkable this human skill is, if we want to be a kind person, we will want to be able to routinely provide others with an abundance of high-quality empathy.

Unfortunately, empathy is a poorly understood construct. Like apologies, our empathic overtures tend to be sloppy and vague, meaning that much of the magic available in an empathic encounter goes missing. How sad to think that folks who are fully capable of high-level empathy are underperforming due to naïveté. Let’s see if we can remedy that.

Defining terms

Before I describe what empathy is, let me tell you what it is not.

It is not a form of sympathy. Sympathy, while a sweet concept, carries a very limited range of expression. When you feel sympathy for another, you will experience pity and sorrow and also hierarchy. By that I mean sympathy implies a certain level of condescension, and that's ok. Here's why. When you are sympathetic, you are extending kind thoughts but you are doing so to someone who is in worse straits currently than you are. Happily, the person on the receiving end of sympathy tends to feel reassured by the sense that they can count on feeling better (back up to normal) in part because there are people like you there waiting for them. The point here is that there is nothing wrong with this sentiment, sympathy, it is simply not empathy.

Nor is empathy agreement with the thoughts, feelings or behaviors of others. I can certainly understand how much fun it must be for young gang members to tag a blank wall on a brand new office building without also believing that it is good when they do so. Many people are blocked from expressing empathy by the belief that it represents concurrence or even approval. I would encourage you to stop a second and think about that last sentence. Let the meaning sink in enough so that the next time you are in a position to be empathic you will be able to check to see if there is any hesitancy in you due to the fear that your receiver may think you are agreeing with them.

Nor is empathy the process of gathering information so that we can fix the other person’s problem. Too often we listen to another only long enough to justify launching into our expert view of what should be done at this point in their lives.

Is “I can imagine” empathy? No. It can be a nice turn of phrase, or not, depending on circumstances, but it cannot be empathy. Empathy is a form of knowing.


Do I Have To Give Up Me To Be Loved By You

- Jordan Paul and Margaret Paul

Dance of Intimacy

- Harriet Lerner

Assholes: A Theory

- Aaron James

Too Good For Her Own Good

- Claudia Bepko and Jo-Ann Krestan

Women's Growth in Diversity

- Judith V. Jordan, Editor



Send your questions to me at: jan@self-construct.com.


What empathy is, by definition, is proof offered to you by another that you have been witnessed and understood in your current situation within the human condition. Crucial in this definition is the sense that we can’t just state that we grasp what you are going through, we need to provide you with evidence of our understanding. As with a mathematical proof, there is a sequence of steps needed to establish the validity of our assertion that we grok you.

The types of empathy

First, it’s important to realize that there are three kinds of empathy – cognitive, affective and behavioral.

Cognitive empathy involves understanding the point of view of someone based on understanding his or her thinking. For example, I can understand why people enjoy scuba diving because I can understand their thoughts on the subject. They explain to me the reasons they enjoy being 30 feet under water (the challenge, the technology, the view, the silence, the camaraderie, the exercise, the sharks, etc.) and that makes sense to me even though my feelings around being 30 feet under water are nothing like theirs (sharks?!). I may never want to join them in a dive, but I can join them mentally in the appreciation of sports that need caution, skill and training.

Affective empathy means I can feel what someone else is feeling. Not necessarily to the same extent, but close enough to create an emotional overlap. If you tell me, for example, that you are feeling bitter about a coworker who is receiving preferential treatment from your mutual boss, I experience empathy with you to the extent some of my life experiences precipitate in me the same feelings as your current feelings. I can identify those life experiences I have had and reactivate the accompanying feelings. And when I can do this there is a part of me that is vibrating at the same emotional frequency as something that is vibrating in you. I understand on a visceral level at least part of what you are feeling.

Behavioral empathy is simply having “been there, done that” which provides a sense of interpersonal connection based on similar life experiences. To the extent I have been through the legal ramifications of the death of a parent, the mechanics of a backpacking trip or the process of buying a house, my understanding of and connectedness to someone else going through those things will be increased.

And, of course, it’s possible to have no empathy in a situation – to not be able to imagine what someone is thinking/feeling/experiencing. A lack of empathy, however, doesn’t mean a lack of caring or connection. We can always sit with another in whatever state they are in even if we cannot empathize. People actually feel touched when you acknowledge that you cannot empathize with them. There is a certain special bond that occurs when someone stipulates to us that the rare phenomenon we are experiencing is beyond his or her understanding. And, even if this weren’t the case, it is certainly more respectful to acknowledge your lack of understanding than to pretend that you do empathize with someone when you don’t.

Balancing empathy

The second aspect to understand about empathy is that it’s important to have boundaries around empathy or else it can become interpersonally invasive. If we lose our frame of reference in the process of being empathic, we can come to believe that the thoughts, feelings or behaviors of another overly concern us and are our responsibility. Or worse, belong to us. The point of empathy is not to identify with another but to identify what another is experiencing. Unhelpful, overweening empathy will lead us to dissolve into the world in such a way that we will sacrifice our mental health by selflessly hyperfocusing on the needs of others or confusing their life with ours. Being selfless is existentially untenable. Thus we can see we need a boundaried empathy. For follow-up on the need for boundaries, see Do I Have To Give Up Me To Be Loved By You by Jordan Paul and Margaret Paul, Dance of Intimacy by Harriet Lerner or Too Good For Her Own Good By Claudia Bepko and Jo-Ann Krestan.

What creates a boundary around empathy is the ability to also be narcissistic. In the orthogonal tradition established in the article What To Change About Yourself, a strength (empathy) needs to exist in an equal and opposite manner relative to another strength (narcissism).

Unfortunately, in our culture narcissism is a notorious concept because healthy narcissism gets confused with malignant narcissism. Malignant narcissism is self-interest to the exclusion of awareness of others. It will lead to coldness, cruelty and assorted unprincipled behaviors. Healthy narcissism is not that. Healthy narcissism is the ability to perceive the very important fact that our unique gifts need to be implemented in order for us to fully exist. In order for that implementation to happen, we must have training, support and resources dedicated to our gifts. Our ability to be narcissistically involved with creating the space within which our talents can flourish comes when we feel entitled to take ourselves seriously and to feel proud of ourselves when we do so.

To keep it from malignant self-focus, we balance narcissism with high levels of empathy.

When the two traits of healthy narcissism and boundaried empathy coexist in us in dynamic equilibrium, they prevent each other from establishing a tyrannical hold on our personality and create, instead, a powerful merger.

1) Low narcissism and low empathy – the lower, left-hand quadrant of this orthogonal pairing would represent a person who can neither feel entitled to be themselves nor care that you have a right to be you.

2) High empathy and low narcissism – people represented by this quadrant are so seriously attached to what others feel, think and do that they are at very high risk for never discovering themselves. They can be experienced as clingy, annoyingly pious or even slightly unreal.

3) High narcissism and low empathy – a person defined by this quadrant might be charismatic and dynamic, but they are also dangerously unaware of or uncaring about how they are impacting others. They are uncomfortable to be around because they cannot be trusted to understand that you might have needs too. For a fascinating look at how these folks tick, see the philosopher Aaron James' book listed in the FAWBOT section.

4) High empathy and high narcissism – people who can exist here are wonderfully able to encounter their world, which means being able to put themselves out there to try new things while also respecting the wishes of others. They are very pleasureful to have in your life because they can be trusted to sensibly check the needs of all.

Developing high-level narcissism

We need to take a detour here to discuss narcissism because, without the capacity to be quite self-centered, we cannot develop high-level empathy. Put another way, we can empathize deeply with other people only if we authentically know and like ourselves. That generosity of spirit relative to ourselves (aka narcissism) will naturally overflow into our attitude toward others, leading us to wonder what those around us may want (aka empathy).

To develop healthy narcissism in yourself, you need to be brave, free from shame, clear on what gifts you have, and willing to believe that you are special. Creating healthy narcissism is to get very good at asking and answering the question: What do I want? People are surprisingly squeamish about that question. They fear their answers will be childish and silly. Sometimes our answers will be. Sometimes all we want are doughnuts for breakfast and a day without chores. But, when we practice letting ourselves discuss our wants internally using that good dialectic dialogue of wise, internalized parental voices, we will get better and better at letting the truly important wants rise to the surface of our thinking and stabilize. And, as is explored in the article about will to power, a good set of wants is required if we are to successfully establish our essence. Eventually our heightened ability to want leads us to face resolutely the ultimate question around wanting: What would I attempt to do next if I knew I could not fail? (This concept is expanded in the article on finding a career.) When we can answer that question, we are ready to take the stage.

It is also very helpful to remember that we need narcissism if we are to engage in the important soloing behaviors that make up effective lives. From the little things like riding a bike to the more significant acts such as applying for a promotion, all good things come to those who believe in their right to attempt. When we are in our narcissism, we are focused on and committed to our gifts and eager to test them out in the world. Eventually we will be in that wonderful position where we can present our gifts to our world.

A healthy narcissist is one who is alert to where her or his appropriate stretching out into the world might bump into someone else's striving. At those boundary situations, the healthy narcissist quickly engages his or her empathic skills to assess for any possible interpersonal dilemma. To put it more colloquially, when we spread our arms to belt out the songs that our generous spirit wants us to sing, we make sure we are not going to clobber someone else's dreams in the nose.

Hearty, healthy narcissism, when merged with high-quality empathy, provides us with enough entitlement to step out onto the center stage of life to give our act a try without hampering others in the process.

The components of empathy

To reiterate our definition, empathy provides proof to another that they have been seen and understood by us. It takes a recursive process to accomplish that proof, a process that involves moving from inside of you to the viewpoint of the other, back to the inside of you and then, once again, back out to the other and back to yourself. Eight steps complete this double loop. None of the steps are difficult, nor are they new to you per se. But it should become clear that, without all eight of the steps, an empathic gesture fails to provide the necessary evidence. And please believe me when I say that, after some concerted repetition, these eight steps flow together to create a precious gift of compassion and camaraderie available to all within your social radius. Put more strongly, when you have highly developed empathic skills you become part of the solution.

1. The first step in being empathic is to step out of our appropriate narcissism. Most often we are pulled out of our focus on ourselves by the noise of another, but we can all certainly, intentionally shift our focus off of ourselves without being prompted. As with much of mature behavior, it is not difficult to do, it is difficult to remember to do. The articles on growth, change and practice will help you strengthen your ability to choose this first task on the road to being empathic.

2. The second step is a little more unusual. It involves choosing also, but the choice is one that we rarely make. It is the choice to bracket off our perspective on the world and agree to enter into the value system of another. We can more easily step away from our own perspective when we fully trust that we can find our way back to ourselves again. That trust comes more easily when we remember that we can stipulate that another’s view of the world is right for them without committing to the corollary that it is also right for us.

3. The third step requires a certain level of imagination. We have to imagine what it’s like to be in the internal reality of another. How are things being perceived by this other, this “not us?” We can get good at this with practice. When we focus on being sensitive people, on truly listening to others, on reading literature that acquaints us with views that differ from ours, and so on, we improve our ability to see the world through the eyes of others. Reading the article on communication can also increase your capacity to enter into the world of another.

4. The fourth step involves returning to our own inner world where we try to remember a situation within us that is similar to what we have just witnessed. This can be an uncomfortable step if it necessitates recalling difficulties we have had. But there is no way to bind ourselves together in an empathic connection without being willing to do that. The discomfort is a large part of the price we pay which is what makes empathy such a gift. Of course, sometimes we get to empathize with victory!

5. The fifth step is tricky because our tendency will be to jump quickly to the sixth step. Before you extend your empathic thoughts or feelings, though, sit for a moment with your internal empathic scenario so that you can fill out important details. You will create an especially rich connection if you can identify a full complement of feelings that attended your past experience, because feelings are simply the most potent proof we have that we grok someone else.

6. Step six is where you provide proof of the empathic connection you have just experienced within. The evidence is in the details of our explanation of why we understand their situation. Important factors to consider for this step are genuineness, vulnerability and specificity.

a. Genuine: You can’t make up an experience and palm it off as real. Or assume that close enough is good enough. A disingenuous attempt at empathy will be apparent in your tone, facial expression and word choice. Remember, it’s far and away better to admit to lack of empathy than to try to fake any part of it.

b. Vulnerable: Even if you are joining someone in glee, there will be a certain level of vulnerability in your empathic response because you are both guessing that you know what is going on with them (a risk of being wrong) and you are sharing your own perspective (a risk of you then being unappreciated, misunderstood, etc.). Despite the vulnerability, you have to use examples that are important to you. Trivial examples thrown up as proof of your connectedness will hurt the receiver.

c. Specific: A rich empathic transmission provides enough details to be believable without pulling the focus off the target of your empathy. So the goal is to just sketch a little scenario, add your reactions to what that was like for you and move quickly to the next step. But put effort into providing the evidence, for there is little solace in the generic and sophomoric “Yeah, man. Life sucks!” version of empathy.

7. Step seven is just a quick check-in with your friend to see if you have both interpreted his or her situation correctly and also made your case. It can be a brief raised eyebrow or an actual question such as “Is that close to how it is for you?” If you were correct, keep the attention on them by jumping right to the last step. If you were incorrect, don’t try to defend your response. You can try again, you can gather more information before you try again, or you can explain that you just don’t understand.

8. This last step is probably the hardest of all. Step eight asks us to close the double loop of empathic proof by simply sitting with the other person in their situation, patiently sharing their reality for a little while. This is a powerful step because, hidden deep within this behavior is this complicated concept – we will believe you are truly remembering what your similar situation was like because what you probably wanted at that point in time was for someone to sit with you for an extended moment. So, by simply sitting with someone, you are providing what you empathically imagine they need and want – a little island in time that proves we have been chosen and joined.

In brief, we are fully, generously, demonstrably empathic when we:

1. Step our of our appropriate narcissism

2. Bracket aside our immediate, personal concerns

3. Imagine what may be going on within another

4. Consult with our memory for similar situations we have faced

5. Clarify the internal memory

6. Transmit our understanding of the other based on our prior experience

7. Double check that our transmission was accurate and correct it as necessary

8. Sit in the moment of empathy with our friend.

With practice the eight steps will become a fluid process that can position you to move through your world able to provide others with loving support.

A shorthand version of this process can happen when that is all you need in an encounter. Looking up from your shopping list to notice a young couple trying to wrestle a tired toddler into a shopping cart and giving them a warm, understanding smile can be a lovely and complete moment of empathy. So can taking the time to poke your head into your coworker’s office to reassure her that her presentation was clearly well prepared.

When you hit a more significant interpersonal encounter, however, you will want to carefully observe your internal procedure to ensure that you are giving this episode your all.

Empathy is an extremely rich and complicated concept. Much more so than most of us realize. In fact, one of my biggest surprises in graduate school was discovering how little I had known about empathy. Over the course of my training I found that, not only had I misunderstood what skills were needed to be empathic, I had also been unaware of the power inherent in the concept.

Three additional considerations

Empathy, like compliments, doesn’t wear out. It can be used and reused with great effect. So please don’t feel that once your have expressed your empathy, you cannot do so again (and again). As long as the empathy is still ringing true to you, it will ring true to the other.

Empathy has a hard time flowing uphill because understanding people with greater power, success, age, experience, sophistication, education, etc. is difficult. Children, for example, can perhaps be curious about what their parents are going through, but will only vaguely understand. Their empathic capacity grows with the passing of time but there is always a 20 or 30-year gap between what they can guess about and what they can know. So if you find yourself not receiving or not being able to feel empathy due to hierarchy, remember that good listening skills are a very effective way to feel connected to another person absent an empathic match.

And lastly, remember that it is not empathic failure to be mistaken in your efforts. Empathic failure is when you do not take these eight steps. When you try to connect empathically but fail, you have still demonstrated the willingness to extend yourself to understand the inner workings of another. And you have probably grown a bit as a result. As psychologist Judith Jordan describes it: "Growth occurs because as I stretch to match or understand your experience, something new is acknowledged or grows in me."

When we are being empathic, we are in one of the most sublime states available to humans. We are the most deeply connected, at our most generous and our ego, while strong, is held kindly in check. We are, in Nietzsche’s words, an übermensch.

A story of empathy

A single father is confronted by his only child, a clever, verbal and complicated fifteen-year-old girl.

Amanda: “I can’t believe you read my journal! I cannot, can NOT believe it.”

Brad: “I didn’t know what else to do. You have just stopped talking to me.”

Amanda: “That’s beside the point. It’s my journal. It’s private. It’s supposed to be private.”

Brad: “I know. I shouldn’t have read it. I just needed to know what’s going on with you.”

Amanda: “It’s none of your business. It’s my journal. It’s private. What’s the matter with you?”

After three more rounds through this impasse, Brad, who had recently taken a marvelous course on being empathic, decided he’d better try something else. He decided to stop thinking about his concerns for her safety or all the things on his side of the argument and focus instead on what Amanda was saying. (Step One)

Amanda: “It’s none of your business what I write in my journal. Everyone knows that.”

Brad listens to her and realizes that his default value is that, as her father, he is entitled to know what is going on in her life. He works to try to step outside that value. (Step Two)

Brad: “Why is it none of my business?”

Amanda: “Because it’s where I practice things…how to think about things and sort things out. I don’t want anyone to watch me when I screw things up.”

Thanks to Amanda’s nimble mind and verbal skills, Brad doesn’t have to work too hard to understand her. Her value here is privacy as she tries things out in life. (Step Three) He listens carefully and then dutifully returns to his own brain to see if he can empathize with her. He remembers how awkward it was for him to learn how to drive with his impatient and clumsy dad. (Step Four) He sits quietly for a few minutes remembering the frustration and humiliation. (Step Five)

Brad: “Well. I know how hard it was for me to learn to drive when your grandpa was teaching me.” (Step Six)

Amanda: “That’s not the same thing. Crap. You just don’t get it.”

Brad listens carefully and thinks some more. (Step Seven)

Brad: “It felt frustrating and humiliating when my father kept yelling at me. That’s what I meant.”

Amanda: “It’s not the same. This is mine. My information and my life.”

Brad went back to the drawing board. He realized he had no idea how Amanda felt.

Brad: “Okay. You’re feeling something else. I don’t know what it is.” (Lack of empathy is all right.)

Amanda: “Are you kidding? You don’t know how it feels to have someone steal from you?”

Brad: “You feel robbed?”

Amanda: “Of course I feel robbed. You stole my privacy.”

Brad goes back to work. He easily comes up with examples from his past where he felt like a victim, betrayed and rageful. He pulls off a great step six.

Brad: “Now you feel like you have no safe place to be yourself. I ruined that for you.”

Amanda: “Yes. You did. This house, my room, my journal have always felt safe to me. Now they don’t.”

Brad was able to sit in that miserable spot with Amanda for just long enough. (Step Eight) She recognized his willingness to do that, which gave her the ability to look him in the eye for the first time since their fight had started. That small look opened the door for Brad to move forward with a thorough apology and more empathic listening. Together they were able to figure out how to establish a locked place for her private things and then they were able to move back to his worries…how much information was he entitled to as he worked to be an appropriately protective and involved father and, more importantly, how he could get that information.

Shouldn’t need to be said

But just to be on the safe side, let me add these thoughts.

It is not empathy if there is an element of competition in the empathic response. As you scroll through your life experiences to find an example to utilize, be sensitive to the fact that you do not want to trump the other person’s feelings. If person A, for example, tells you that she is fretting over her son’s level of pot smoking, don’t respond with a description of your horrible night in the ER when your son overdosed on cocaine.

It is not empathy if the intent it to redirect the conversation back to yourself. It can be so very easy to hijack a conversation when you engage in step 6 even if you don’t mean to do so because both people can get sidetracked by the empathically offered scenario. As I mentioned above, if you are the person extending empathy, it is your responsibility to return the focus immediately to the person who is in need of your caring attention. If you find yourself frequently, purposefully redirecting conversations back to you, it might be time for you to seek professional therapy because that attention-seeking behavior is a strong indication that your narcissism is a little too dominant.

It is not empathy if it remains within your skull. To totally grok someone but remain silent is to withhold a precious gift making it relational robbery. So please don’t think that the other person has picked up on your empathy just because your mind is full of profound understanding and you have leaned forward and shot love bullets out of your eyes. Empathy needs more than warm facial expressions in order to land. It needs specific words of both clarity and charity.

In conclusion

Sloppy, thoughtless behavior is easy. Kindness is difficult. The former occurs when choice is driven by pure narcissism therefore involving no consideration of anyone else except, perhaps, in terms of strategic thinking. The latter occurs in the upper-right-hand location of the orthogonal relationship between narcissism and empathy and, as such, requires much effort because the two skills have to work together to support coherent behavior. Empathy also requires transparency, so the gift of empathy can only be given by someone brave enough to be transparent, to share their insides in a tentative expression of empathy.

What would make this good behavior worth it, then?

There are selfish reasons and there are selfless reasons.

One selfish reason to be kind is this: acts of empathy enlarge us because they require us to step outside our normal boundaries. We most often grow when we stretch, making us a more impressive person to ourselves and to others. This, sweetly, makes us even more capable of spreading empathy throughout our day. Another personal benefit is the counterbalancing effect empathy has on narcissism. The more empathically skilled we are, the more freely we can seek ways to get our own needs met without worrying about stepping on someone’s toes. And, finally, offering someone the gift of empathy generates emotional equity in the relationship that will likely be there in the future when it’s our turn to need support.

One selfless reason to be kind is that it is one of the best ways to create intimacy – even between complete strangers – in an I-Thou moment. It provides a level of mutual understanding and connection that glues any two people together however briefly as they move through the world. It also eases pain in another human being with whom you have come in contact. And when you employ empathy you are contributing to the creation of a more beautiful world. Who knows how much difference it would make for humans everywhere if we were all more capable of putting in motion the butterfly effect of considerate behavior.

And here is a global benefit of employing empathy generously throughout your day – empathy creates liking because it is a tiny, human version of “To know all is to love all.” If you take the time and put in the effort to get to know someone better by making an empathic connection, you can make this true: To know a little is to like a little! Makes me wonder how much sweeter the world would be if we were all able to like each other just a little more.

So here’s what this article is selling: Building the skill of providing empathic connection makes you both more resilient and a better citizen in a better world.

© Copyright 2024 Jan Iversen. All rights reserved.