....The Crucial Role of Empathy in Life-Fulfillment

Robert D. Caldwell, M. Div.

Latching onto a few basic ideas to give some order midst the confusions of living has always appealed to me. Along with "You can't have your cake and eat it too," and "If I'm not for myself, who will be?," I like this one: "Knowing and being known" (empathy) provides the energy, the glue, and the reason-for-being of human experience.

Empathy is hearing another in such a way that he or she actually feels understood. It is listening, and conveying that one is listening, in such a manner that the other person experiences being taken in, attended to, and affirmed. Empathy acknowledges only what the hearer is prepared to hear: it never goes beyond what the person is ready to accept about herself. It never imposes the ideas of the listener. It makes no suggestions. It hears without judgment and confirms that it has heard. Empathy is always and only actualized by the acknowledgment of the receiver. One simply cannot be empathic without the other experiencing being known. The speaker cannot say--"I don't feel that you are getting it," and in spite of this, the listener continues to believe he is being emphatic. Though, it might prove-out that the listener did indeed "get-it'--i.e. he did understand the dynamics of what is going on, this may make him intuitive and wise, it does not make him empathic. We can all talk about ourselves in a way that is out-of-touch with our actual capacities, but "awareness" of themes that the speaker denies is not empathy. Empathy connects and is experienced by the receiver as a connection. Empathy is the catalytic agent in love. Love includes desire, lust, companionship commitment--but without empathy it has no center, no bonding. Love yearned for, love lost, love denied, love destroyed, love abused--all of these include failures of empathy. Love realized, love joyful, love ecstatic, love celebrated--all are suffused with empathic dynamics. Often love is a synonym for empathy.


Without empathy, people don't get interested--or committed. Let's illustrate with you and me: unless this topic and my beginning attempts to make contact with you through these written words are touching you where your interests are, unless you are being known by my words, and they are beginning to bring to the forefront of your awareness some question, notion, or feeling that is important to you, you probably have not read this far.

When empathy is absent, people are caught in negativity. George grew up as a neglected middle child. His compensated by hard study and became a whiz in computer sales. At forty-four, though competent and experienced, he never seems able to hold a job for more than eighteen months. Never having felt that others were paying attention to him, he has turned suspicious and hostile and is unable to form the solid bonds of trust needed to make a firm place for himself in his work world. Always--yes always, George complains about his bosses, and his co-workers. He feels that his superiors do not respect his feelings, needs, or capacities. People are "never listening," or "always forgetting," or "promising one thing and doing another." He is forever unsatisfied--with the way he is received, with the way he is treated, even with the way people look at him or the tone of voice they use. George is desperately in need of empathy from significant others, but his negativity makes finding it highly unlikely.

When empathy doesn't happen people are trapped in toxic relationships. Trouble in couple's relationships invariably means that the empathy-dynamic between them has gotten out of whack. Lisa and John have been together for nine years. They are continually in each others company, but seldom in sync. They mirror many of each other's interests--pursuing independent business careers, eating similar diets, accompanying each other on obligatory family visits, vacationing together to their favorite Caribbean isles. But they never listen to one another and exchange appreciative recognitions for being understood by the other. They never say to one another in any form: "Thanks so much for hearing me. I really feel understood." Instead each carries such loads of resentment toward the other that they may use any given moment of the other's vulnerability to point out just how he or she "has never been there when needed." In fact, either of them was quite capable of making things more difficult when being helpful was poignantly indicated. In an unguarded almost-tender moment, John said that he appreciated Lisa having taken the day off to be with him when he was in the hospital for a gall bladder operation. Lisa felt compelled to point out that she had only gone because he had hassled her so badly when she didn't accompany him the last time he was in the hospital, and she didn't want to go through that torture again. Lisa gave John a non-empathic, hostile response to his appreciation, making him feel like a fool for having spoken positively of her. Rather than enjoying his good will--a precious commodity in this family--it is thrown back at him as trash. John and Lisa are caught in a non-empathic mirroring. They are each too scared, too vulnerable, to trust themselves to be open to receiving each other honestly within the moment and reflecting candidly their experiences to one another. So they interrupt a flow of confirmation and acceptance to fall into the more familiar posture of making regressed rehashes of old hurtful behaviors.

When empathy is lost nations destroy each other. On the international scene, the major conflicts can be seen as consequences of the dearth of empathy. Bosnia, Serbia, and Croatia are still fresh examples of how fighting and killing can be sustained beyond all reason when each side is propelled by archaic grievances and hatreds, each side taking every advantage to bring havoc, pain, and death upon those who have hurt them. Often, we watched the parade of tragedy on television, angry fighting men, the listless women and children, and the embattled elderly, as though they were our siblings, parents, cousins and friends. We wondered how is it possible that these people--seemingly so like us--can inflict and endure torture, starvation and murder on each other, and each other's children, rather than find a peaceful way to live together, even as they had just a few years before. Apparently, they became as enemies must always become in order for people to bear to inflict pain and destruction on one another: persons for whom all empathy is rejected, persons "not-like-us," objectified beings who are seen only as threats to each other's safety. The depersonalization of the enemy is so complete that to see them as people-like-oneself would seem traitorous to one's own community.


We do not come into the world prepared to be empathic to our parents. It is supposed to be the other way around. The first responsibility of parents is to be empathic to their children. An empathic mother has the capacity for a healthy symbiotic response to her child. Often an infant whimpers a bit, then softly cries. The mother notes the whimpering, but does not respond immediately, knowing that babies express mild stomach discomfort or crampiness from being too long in one position, and this unrest may soon pass. When her baby continues crying, she checks for a possible diaper change, and lacking that need, she imagines he might be hungry. The infant is taken gently and firmly to the mother's breast, where he gropes for the nipple frantically, latches on, and with gurgles and sighs begins contentedly to nurse. This mother is a model of empathy, she has taken in the condition of the baby, attuned to his feelings and responded in the way that mothers can give the infant reassurance--by meeting her child's needs. She meets them so exquisitely, that we may think of the child experiencing satisfaction as an act by which the infant feels his own power. After all, he cried and his hunger was satisfied--such a direct result of one actions would make anyone feel powerful.

The newborn has lived inside an empathic womb in which her very life and that of her mother were one--if she moved her mother moved, if her mother moved she moved. They were in it together. Then the emergence from the womb. Quite literally, without empathy--the reading of and responding to her organismic demands--the child would not survive. The first thing we learn, by default, is that this is an empathic universe. Children who do not have a "good enough" experience of their social world being empathic to them either die for lack of care or are so severely injured in psyche and spirit that spend their lives compensating--some elegantly, some tragically, and all grades in between, for their deficits of empathic bonding. Without the empathic connection, we are not connected at all. Without empathy we are alone.

Desmond Morris recently presented a splendid TV series, The Human Animal. Among the wonders of our biological nature is our immediate need to know and be known in the world. It has long been believed that infants did not see at birth, and certainly they did not directly interact through sight. Morris demonstrated how this traditional notion is now disproved. He showed a doctor holding a newborn of fifteen minutes. When the doctor stuck out his tongue, the infant mimicked him with a full display of his tongue. From the beginning we are made to mirror and be mirrored. We look at each other, we trade back and forth that we are experiencing what the other is experiencing. This is our first and most fundamental and most instinctive need. It is how we know we exist, and we carry this need throughout our lives.

When we have lost the ability to communicate empathetically, trouble comes. The Washington Post recently carried an extensive analysis of the adjustment of Cambodian families in this county. The writer noted that there is a huge gap between the displaced Cambodian parents, who lived through the traumatic holocaust under the Khmer Rouge, and their children who have grown up in this country knowing more about Mickey Mouse, Madonna, Bevis and Butthead than the Killing Fields. Their generation gap defines non-empathic disconnection, for they cannot mirror one another's experience, hence the breakup--often even violent breakup--of the mores and solidarity of their family life.

As a marriage counselor, I see no couple whose difficulties are not wholly created or significantly contributed to by empathic dissonance and failure. The most fundamental complaints partners make about each other go something like this: "I can tell that he doesn't appreciate what I'm saying." "He shows no respect for me." "Whenever I speak he doesn't take me seriously." There is even a popular new comic strip, Non Sequitur, which often finds its humor in showing how people fail to mirror each other--the reader is left to ponder the humor/tragedy of such missed connections. A recent strip depicts a traveling business man, who in a sentimental moment, is attracted by a T Shirt in an airport shop. When he gets home, he proudly comes through the door greeting his wife wearing the shirt which says "Absence makes the heart grow fonder." She is wearing a shirt inscribed: "Out of sight, out of mind." We know they are in for big trouble.

Central in the teachings of the great religions is the declaration that identifies God and love. Perhaps, what they mean is that God is Empathy, or Empathy is God: i.e., the essential binding force of social existence is empathy--the connection between persons in which we feel not alone, but reflected and affirmed. Something like, "I'm known, therefore I am."


Free associating to what the other person is saying

Talking about yourself because you think that what you say is "like" what the other person is saying Guessing about the person's hidden thoughts and motives and telling them what they "really" mean

Insisting you "understand" when the speaker doesn't think you do

Being sympathetic or sentimental--for these are emotions that are yours and not in the story told by the individual


Empathy thrives in a situation in which the listening person is strong and secure. It is easy to honor empathy but, actually, empathy cannot happen except in an atmosphere which is free of threat. Threats to empathy include the following:

Stress. Stress is the overwhelm of the body/mind. It is when our adrenal system is alerting us that more is being needed from us than we are comfortably able to produce. Our body energies are directed to accomplishing our tasks, or reducing demands in such a way as to minimize tensions that have been activated. Stress is the body's archaic fight/flight system that is brought into motion to meet or avoid perceived urgent demands. When we are so engaged, so alert and centered on accomplishing challenges that are stressful, it is impossible to be empathic. For empathy is too open and vulnerable and pliant to be able to be active at the same time that we are on-alert to deal with our stressful world.

Fear. Fear is the more extreme threat to the self. It is the expectation that something harmful, even deadly, is imminent. Fear closes us up--and it should; we become tight and ready to spring. In fear, the first consideration is for preservation of the self. Empathy, being a symbiotic connection that assumes safety and flow with others, is appropriately ousted by fear. It would be immobilizing to think compassionately (read "empathetically") of another, if one were to meet him on a battlefield in hand-to-hand combat. I have a friend who fought in World War II. In the wallet of a Japanese soldier he had killed, he found pictures of the man's wife and children; this moment broke his will to fight for the rest of the war. Hence the contemptuous and dehumanizing names of "enemies"--Japs, Krauts, Commies, Niggers, Fem-Nazis, Chicks. These common epithets come to symbolize groups of people in an impersonal way, so to be associated with such a group is to be disassociated from "Our" chosen group.. These contemptuous divisions have long been ways persons differentiate safe and unsafe, loved and hated, groups. And there is a further demonic twist: by the act of our having designated other groups as "not-us" and thereby a threat to us, so do we create ourselves as threats to them. The cycle of fear of the other is perpetuated. Any division we make will inevitably make the other feel divided from us, and in division--the absence of empathy--there is always the reality, implicitly, of violence and the potential for acted out violence.

Shame. Shame banishes empathy, for shame is the reaction to non-empathic aggression. Shame is the sense of being not known, not worthy to be known, outcast. Shame is the polar opposite of empathy. Hence when one is shamed, one is expelled from a state of empathic relationship--the shaming message being that the affirming, reliable connection is withdrawn. When shamed one most often into oneself--that's the only place to go--to try to preserve the self. Since when we are shamed, the empathy bond has failed, there is literally nothing to do but dwell within the self, nursing one's injuries till the shame attack wears off--if it ever does. The second order of response to shame is aggression rather than withdrawal. In retaliation a person may turn into a non-empathic shame-maker, attempting to hurt someone even as one has been hurt. We become aggressive in order to preserve a beleaguered and attacked self. Only after recovering from the initial shaming, and in remembering alternative mirroring and affirming connections, can empathy be re-established.

Anger. Anger is the most aggressive response to fear or shame. It's job is to defend and make safe the world for the self. It is not about empathy, but about self-preservation, about pushing the intruder away from one's territory, psychic or material. It is impossible to be angry and non-judgmentally tuned into the reality and the needs of another. Anger is about minimizing hurt and the threat of hurt by taking control, even to the extent of destroying the perceived attacker. So we develop these angry responses to threats to the self, and we establish walls and embattlements that are more than those needed to get us through the day. We build solid barriers, that limit our visibility of and vulnerability to the world. The absence of empathy creates the seedbed for all conflict. And all of us when we are hurt--and lack sufficient inner resources to heal because our storehouse of empathetically derived confidence is too thin--take the more primitive way: shunning or attacking those we believe are avoiding or trying to dominate us.

Pain. To be empathic exposes one to the feelings, dreams, and injuries of others. Many people are overwhelmed by attempting to deal with their own feelings and life issues, to open to others' misfortunes is more than they can tolerate. Empathy often hurts; it often hurts very badly. Everyday the newspaper carries stories and pictures of tragedies. In India there is the reappearance of the Plague. In Japan there are the memorial services, with pictures of the now too-imaginable devastation, brought by the A-bombs. In our own city children are raped, burned, tortured and shot. Often, the cacophony of disasters and unspeakable miseries is too painful to tolerate. To help us manage our pain nature has furnished us with a much needed "empathic wall" that is an important part of our psyches. It protects us from more than we can integrate into awareness, as we must be able to function in a universe that brings many tragedies. This wall that limits empathy can also become such a fixture, that we hide behind it and lose vital contact with the variety and vitality of others' experience. In avoiding other pain, we avoid enriched community.

Regret. We may not be able to hold onto an empathic sensitivity, because of the pain its brings up, as we become aware that we were given so little empathy. Many times I have heard people say: "Why should I pay any attention to his needs, he doesn't to mine." Under this snide and vindictive statement is anger/rage for having not received empathy in measure according to need--consequently one is resistant to give to another what one resents never having received oneself.

Mystery. Empathy is threatening because it takes us into the unknown. That there are ways to understand the world that are quite different from our own can cause a lot of apprehension and the temptation to escape from new experiences. The rigid person cannot be empathic, because he may hear something different from what he wants to hear. He will be continually listening to the pre-set categories in his head rather than exploring the mind and manners of another person. A possibility which may be terrifying, as he does not know where it will lead. We have a remarkable scope of experiences on which to draw. Most people who have lived into adulthood have at least some fragments of experience that make possible identification with the range of experiences of other persons. The problem is not that we don't have enough experience to be able to find points of overlap and understanding with practically anything (non-technical) that another is talking about; the problem is that we are too wedded to our biases to try to learn something new or too scared that the unknown will obliterate what is familiar and accustomed.



Following what the other person is saying--words, body language, voice tone--as closely as possible

Stating to the person your closest approximation of what you hear her saying including nuances and thoughts that are only beginning to form

In addition to listening and offering reflections, empathy is staying with the person through a completion of what he or she wants to say

Empathy is judging the success of your responses by the degree of direct feedback you receive from the other that she or he does indeed feel understood


Blocks to empathy are so formidable that they make a kind of inverse witness to the importance of developing our empathic sensitivity and style. The non-empathic life is surely not worth living. In fact people regularly get injured and killed in this sort of world. Here is a practical program for improving your ability to live empathetically both as the actor and the acted-upon.

Empathy as Adventure. We lead amazingly narcissistic lives--caught in ourselves, bound by our own thoughts, and ruled by our anxieties to real and imagined threats to the life we are used to. Empathy is letting go of exclusive self-concern and turning one's attention to the other person. It is opening up to being led by the other as though she were a practiced guide leading one through a strange forest. And, as with such a guide, we relinquish control in order to receive the new and expanded experience a guide can offer. Empathy means paying singular attention to the other person. It does not impose one's own prejudices and biases and interpretations on the other. Empathy not only hears the content of the story by another, it hears and accepts the interpretation of the other. Empathy is the most broadening interaction we can have with one another, for it opens the mind to learning--for real--what the other person is like. And this learning is sealed by the response we make, which is confirmed or rejected by the other. Actually, the efficacy of an empathic interchange is rather easy to determine: the other person simply tells us whether or not she has experienced us as correctly tuned-in to her. Empathy as adventure may sound simple, but the idea is inherently threatening, for true empathy brings the new, the unknown, the mystery. For instance, if one is listening to another talk about a movie that one has always loved, and the person speaking is roundly denouncing the ethics and the art of the film, one's first response may be to get offended, then defensive, then perhaps to attack. On the other hand, an empathic response allow us to have (through another's mind) a whole new way of seeing the film--and perhaps all films for the rest of our lives. Being empathic gives us opportunity to rearrange our patterned responses to any experience the other person will speak of. And if we continue to hold our opinion, it will widen our understanding that our view is but one of many in the human possibilities of response. We are not set apart from others by superiority or inferiority of thought; rather we both may claim our uniqueness, thus setting out the possibility of living well in a universe of diverse selves.

Empathy as Enlarging Perspective. Through empathy we learn how the other thinks, even why he thinks as he does. Through empathy we learn the obvious/secret truth: the other is as real as we are--an amazingly simple statement, but one that is lost experientially to all but those few who actually listen to others. Without empathy you can have no breadth of perspective, because your world is limited to the one already formed in your mind. You are the prisoner of a monotone mind that cannot hear another over the sound of your own inner voices. The greatest political mistake of our era, the Vietnam war is well documented by a thousand writers including Robert McNamara as a colossal, bloody failure of empathy: we did not make serious efforts to understand the context of the conflict, the nature of the people, and the history of the region. With a more empathic approach to the history of Indochina, the tormented history of our past thirty years would have been remarkably different.

Empathy as an Effective Power Base. Empathy is how we understand the world. Unless we pay attention to what others think, to their thought processes, to their spectrum of feelings, we don't know what is going on. Not only do we gain perspective, we gain knowledge of what others feel--and also of what they want and need. We escape from myopia and enter the world through empathy. If we try to relate to the world without empathy, we are either imposing our will on others or we are trying out various ideas in a hit-or-miss manner--hardly a prescription to emerge intact or powerful. I am not talking about power-over another, but power to express and act effectively in the world. Empathy enables is to do more than simply massage our own egos, but of knowing how people actually feel and think and are motivated. With such awareness, we are prepared to have a basis to create synergistically with one another.

Empathy and Assertiveness. Empathy is, of course, only half the human story. As empathy is yin, the principle of receiving, the feminine principle, then assertiveness, or pro-active engagement, the yang or masculine principle, is the completing process for living in the world. Both are essential. Empathy is the nurturing (mothering) or grounding (earth mother) aspect of life. Without empathy the pro-active forces, driven by fear, shame, et al, come from frantic desperation and substitution of "power-over" for "power-shared." Life lived well is in a balanced rhythm of empathy and assertiveness. In fact, assertiveness that is not grounded in empathy and oriented from an attentive understanding of others is no more than a crap-shoot for success. Though assertiveness and empathy cannot be actively present at the same time, it is also true that assertive persons who haven't gathered a lot of empathic awareness in their data bags, are guessing about what works in interaction with others, and not coming from knowledge.

Empathy as Self-fulfillment. Mostly, I have written this paper from the standpoint of the "listener," the person offering empathic understanding to another. It is very important to note that the ability to make empathic connections as the receiver is of equal and complementary value as that of the listener. This ability to live in nourishing receptivity to another's empathic response is perhaps the highest value to the self and to society. Before we are listeners we are receivers; infants have no other program for survival. This time the egg does come before the chicken. Being listened to is an ability not easily developed. It is complex and threatening to develop significant empathic exchange with another soul. But to the extent we are able to receive and give empathy, we enter a world in which we can feel solidly received, in which we discover ourselves as valued. It is a world in which we feel sufficiently grounded in awareness of who we are that we are able to risk reaching out to others with our wants and values and respond with openness and interest to them.

Empathy as a Spiritual Path. Empathy is that practice by which we surrender our predispositions, prejudices, and judgments and attend to the expressed reality of the other person. Empathy is social spirituality. There is a merging in empathy which bypasses the isolation and atomization and differentiation of selves as "two become one" in the moment of common union (communion). There is a timelessness in empathic practice: one is not trying to "accomplish anything," for one is not leading--but being led. Empathy is the receiver, and in the reception is the joining of persons. The empathic person receives both at the explicit level--that of rational information and meaning, and of deepest mind--that of body and soul, for he or she is listening to "holistic" messages--the evolving and unconscious messages. The empathic person is not trying to "do anything about" what is being conveyed, but receives and reflects themes and feelings so listener and listened-to can share a palpable sense of meeting. (Buber: "All real living is meeting.") Always, empathic reflection is without judgment--a pervasive principle of spiritual development. By being non-judgmental one dynamically affirms the worth of the other--and, by derivation, the worth of the self.

Empathy is the nucleus of love. It is the link through which persons exchange acceptance and appreciation and active understanding. When the empathic experience is integrated in our day-by-day existence, both in giving and receiving, the foundation is set to live life very well--and with very good connections.

Robert Caldwell, M. Div., is a Certified Professional Counselor and has a private practice in Individual, Couple, and Group Psychotherapy in Bethesda, MD. He can be reached at (301) 652-6180.