How to overcome the limitations of empathy

Empathy is a human quality, beneficial in most social contexts. But in intimate relationships, especially those that have been damaged, empathy, as it is commonly understood, is woefully inadequate.

Empathy is the identification with what your person is feeling. (“I feel your pain. I feel you.”) Here’s why this is a serious limitation after relationship damage. Chances are, you and your partner have different core vulnerabilities that govern your judgments about each other’s experience.

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Core vulnerability is the emotional state that is most terrible for you, against which you have developed the strongest defenses. The most common core vulnerabilities are fear and shame. Both are scary, of course, but your core vulnerability is what’s scarier for you.

For example, people whose main vulnerability is fear of isolation will accept a certain amount of shame, if necessary, to feel safe and connected, or at least to avoid feeling isolated. People whose main vulnerability is shame (failure or loss of status) will risk isolating themselves in order to feel successful, or at least to avoid feeling failed.

In general, fearful people and shame avoiders are attracted to each other. Those for whom the most feared emotional experience is fear are likely to seek partners they perceive as protective, powerful, and generous. Those whose most feared emotional experience is shame will likely cope by projecting power, protectiveness, generosity, or other faces of success, and they will seek partners who especially appreciate those qualities.

The same qualities that bring couples together can tear them apart under stress, when they rely on empathy instead of mutual compassion. A fearful partner can hardly identify with the deeper experience of a shame-avoiding partner; Failure, while unpleasant, isn’t so bad when you connect emotionally with a partner who cares. Shame-avoiding couples can hardly relate to their lovers’ deeper experience of fear of isolation because feeling like a failure makes them i want to isolate. These limitations of empathy become a trap when they inhibit understanding and provoke negative judgments:

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Yo I wouldn’t be afraid of someone yelling. There is nothing to fear! Something happens to you because you are afraid.

Yo I wouldn’t be ashamed to ask for a raise that helps our family just because the boss might say no. Grow up now!”

Think about how often you’ve heard statements like “I would never have done what he did” or “How could she feel that way?” or “She couldn’t have reacted the way they did.” Empathy is, in general, confined to one’s own experience and vulnerabilities.

For example, it is relatively easy to empathize with people who have lost their sight, because we can close our eyes and imagine how bad it would be. But we need a higher form of compassion for those born without sight because we cannot imagine what it would be like to have a brain without visual images. We cannot understand it because our brains have developed complex circuits integrated with visual images. It is beyond our ability to imagine a world without visual images, which would be like imagining that we are dead.

Because we cannot put ourselves in the imaginary shoes of those born blind, our compassion forces us beyond the limitations of our experience. Compassion for the congenitally blind would naturally include an appreciation of our differences and admiration for their unique perspectives, heightened awareness of their other senses, and ability to navigate a social world built for the sighted.

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We become better people by growing beyond the limitations of our experience. That’s the kind of compassion needed to repair intimate relationships.

Compassion and kindness motivate specific emotional support that will help the injured party recover, which is probably not what you want when you’re feeling emotionally down or hurt. However, most people in damaged intimate relationships are inclined to give what they would want if they were in their partner’s shoes because they are trapped within the constraints of empathy. The fact is that what a partner needs to recover is often different from what the supportive partner wants.

We are virtually guaranteed that our partners will place different emotional meanings on the same events and behaviors, due to our different core vulnerabilities, temperaments, metabolisms, family and developmental histories, life experiences, hormones, hormone levels, and support networks. Compassion leads us to appreciate and celebrate differences. Empathy can easily lead to an illusion of equality and intolerance of differences.

Neuroscientist Joseph Le Deux and others argue that the experience of emotions is so ingrained in personal history and individual psychology and physiology that, like snowflakes, no two are alike. That means empathy is projection. Those who insist that their partners feel what they feel can push their partners away.

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“If I don’t run away, I’ll be dragged into his state of mind.”

Not surprisingly, those who demand empathy from their partners are too judgmental to be empathetic to their partners. They project resentment and inevitably get resentment in return.

Those who appreciate the self-reward of compassion and kindness project compassion and kindness, which tend to be reciprocated, though not to the extent that resentment is.