Identity and Empathy

​​​"You Just Don't Get It":

Discovering Empathy

​​An essay on what's missing

in too many relationships
by Ken Stewart, Ph.D.

How do we connect? When I speak English and you speak English ­ and I don't understand you and you don't understand me? More often than not, it can be summed up in one word: EMPATHY. This is the ability to connect ­ both emotionally and intellectually ­ with the heart and the head ­ of the other person. When we successfully connect the heart and mind of our partner, our child, our parent, he or she have the felt sense that we "get" what they are feeling and thinking. They will feel connected to and understood. As humans this is probably one of the most satisfying experiences we can have, no matter if we are 5 or 75.

Imagination and Memory

If I say or do something that hurts your feelings, and you tell me so, if I respond by getting angry and defensive, you might easily conclude that I "just don't get it". I just don't "get" your pain. I haven't indicated to you that I acknowledge your pain when I just defend myself or retaliate with blame. I don't "get it" because a crucial step is missing: Telling you what I imagine you must have felt, what I imagine you must have experienced. Using empathic imagination requires that I remember times when I felt sad, angry, unhappy, or disappointed. When I recall those experiences I may feel twinges of those old feelings again. That's good, because then I am able to use these memories and my imagination to connect with you through empathic statements like: "My remarks must have hurt you. I'm sorry. They must have left you feeling angry /sad / disappointed", "I remember when that's happened to me like that and I felt ­ hurt/ angry / sad / disappointed . . ." Yet, the dilemma is I can't really know what you really feel unless I am in your skin. I can't completely know your pain, your anger, or your disappointment unless I am you. Even if I am sincere and really make an effort to understand, at best I am still left with the limits of my imagination. That imagination must stretch and help me get beyond the limits of my self-absorption.

Temporary blurring of boundaries

When I open myself up to you - through memory and empathic imagination, the boundaries between us can get blurry. If I get deep into my feelings, through memory of my own experiences, and by paying very careful attention to your thoughts and feelings, I may feel a rush of feeling over me. If I am empathizing with your anger - at something or someone else - I too may feel that anger coming over me. If your anger is directed at me, if I let myself be open to you, I may experience a flood of shame, guilt, or sadness. As long as I don't get defensive at that moment, but just let myself experience your anger, we have the chance of making a connection. But, if at that moment when I feel attacked or shamed I get defensive, the connection is broken, and you likely think I "don't get it." I have to stay with my feelings - even if they make me uncomfortable. They won't kill me. They will allow me, however, to better "know" your feelings.

Or, if you are sad, disappointed, feel betrayed, or happy.about something or someone else - not me - then it may be a bit easier to open myself up to your feelings. But, maybe not. Your anger / sadness / grief / disappointment may seem so intense that its hard for me to take it in. Again, let it happen. Let yourself be open to those feelings. It will create a deeper connection. It will provide for you an a more authentic experience and space from which to say to me - "I think I understand" (since you can never understand fully). Or, "Boy, listening to you, I'm starting to understand just a bit how you must feel. I can remember at time when I felt [anger/ in grief / sad / disappointed / betrayed] and if it's anything like that .., well .. that's pretty intense" (or something like that).

The boundaries between you and the other get temporarily blurred. But they don't have to stay that way. They just get blurred in the intensity of the conversation. Afterward, you go back to being you and the other stays themselves. But, you are both transformed through the empathic connection.

When I'm angry with you

But it's hard to be empathic when I am angry or frustrated, when I feel disappointed or betrayed. If I'm angry with you I don't want to understand, I just want you stop what you are doing or saying. And if I'm disappointed or feel betrayed, I could care less about your state of mind or your context. I'm just angry and hurt. Intense feelings flood my awareness with all sorts of demands to be noticed. It's as if the room is filled with anger or hurt ­ so filled that there isn't any room for you. How can I put myself in your shoes when I'm too caught up in the intensity of my own feelings? I want you to understand meinstead. So certain am I in my righteous anger that it never occurs to me to ask the slightest question about your point of view or your experiences.

The death of curiosity - finalizations

When I am under attack I don't have the luxury of what seems to me to be idle curiosity. I don't want to learn anything new. I just want to mobilize my own self-righteous anger or nurture my own hurt feelings. Curiosity may be the very skill I need, especially when I feel so certain about you and your behavior. Curiosity - strongly applied - breaks down generalizations and stereotypes. It breaks down "finalizations" ­ statements that are the final word on the subject. A finalization doesn't see the sense in learning anything new ..after all, you will always be a jerk, selfish, or stupid, and that's final. No need for further understanding. But of course going further into your experiences is the very thing needed when I feel at the end of my patience. Finalizations are what come out of our mouths when we feel like we are at the end of our patience. They say I have reached the end of my patience, my sympathy, and my generosity.

The challenge of empathy

And that's just the challenge that empathy provides for us. Just when I feel at the end of my limits, the end of my generosity, then I need to go further. At least if I want a relationship with you. The core of a satisfying relationship is the exchange of understanding. You agree to understand me and I agree to do the same. A close and deep friendship or an intimate and satisfying marriage is one in which there is ready empathy. Instead of being quick to judge or quick to conclude, I take my time getting to know you, even if I have known you for years. If I experience you showing curiosity toward what I think, I feel flattered and I feel empowered. In fact, friendships and marriages that are satisfying are those that helps each flourish, to be the best we can be. When we flourish we grow in our abilities and understanding. We expand the limits of our abilities.

A personal story

In 1991 I got hit by a car while riding my bicycle in the countryside. The car hit my left leg with it's front bumper, breaking my lower leg, ankle and foot, throwing me in the air several feet until I came crashing down in the ditch. The accident left me with permanent nerve damage in left foot, nerves that were severed inside my foot that will never regenerate. All kinds of weird signals get sent to my brain from those damaged and shorted-out nerves, just not the normal ones. If I am bearing my weight on my nerve-damaged foot for very long it feels like an elephant just stepped on it: there are sensations of hot, cold, tight, and tingling to the point extreme pain.

For about 5 years after my accident, a good friend of mine that I used to train for marathons with at the peak of my running abilities would try to connect with me each time he saw me, which was about every 6 months. He would say, "How's your foot?' I always told him the same thing: "Its lousy, if you want to know the truth. It hurts like hell. And it isn't going to get any better." He would hear that and sort of be nonplused as to what to say next. Usually I changed the subject and we got caught up with other things. And each time I saw him we would go through the same scenario. He would ask me about my foot, and I would give him the same bleak reply. After about the fifth time of this scenario I began to feel angry. I didn't tell him that though. I let it go. Maybe it was too much to contemplate for him, who used to be an elite runner in his prime. He couldn't find the words to show me empathy. He tried, but it only resulted in my feeling irritated.

On the other hand, another friend of mine will not ask me how my foot feels. She will comment, however, that she can't imagine what it must be like for me to have such an injury ­ especially since I was so physically active for so many years. Her voice gets soft and almost drops off when she says that. You might say that what she is showing is more sympathy than empathy. Perhaps so. She also has said she can remember when she broke a leg or ankle and how hard it was for her to adjust to things after her injury. She tired to put herself in my place, even though she really can't. She reaches out to me with her eyes, with her voice ­ with a lilt of care and tenderness. She has this tone about her ­ a tone that seems to resonate through her like a low-pitched tuning fork set upon an antique walnut cabinet.

Maybe some things are too harsh or too painful for us to imagine. To imagine what its like to be paralyzed from the neck down like Christopher Reeve, or to bear the loss of a child, or to bear the terminal illness of a spouse ­ some things are almost beyond our imagination. But they are not beyond our reckoning ­ or beyond our respect. We don't know what to say. We don't know what to do. But we don't have to say to do anything. We can respect what we cannot know; we can acknowledge what we cannot articulate. And often it will be enough.

It does, though, require a deeper kind of listening than we usually do. It requires an attempt at imagining the unimaginable ­ and a profound respect for our lack of language to breech the chasm between the other and us. We try empathy ­ we try it the best we know how ­ and sometimes all we can do is sit in silence at someone's side. And that's enough. But when we can find the words to say something, to imagine and then articulate some attempt at empathy ­ at imagining what it might be like to be in the other's skin - then even the frailty and incompleteness of our words can help to heal the other. And it won't be enough. Yet if we have tried to imagine, tried to articulate, tired to connect, then it will do.