Top four (4) empathy breakdowns – and how to overcome them

Empathy breaks down into emotional contagion. Empathy breaks down in conformity and the closing off of possibilities for flourishing. Empathy breaks down in projection. Empathy breaks down in devaluing and cynical language, in which our humanity Slide1literally gets lost in translation. These are not the only ways that empathy fails, but they are the Big Four. How to overcome them?

Break throughs in empathy arise from working through the breakdowns of empathy. Empathic receptivity breaks down into emotional contagion, suggestibility, and being over-stimulated by the inbound communication of the other person’s strong feelings. If one stops in the analysis of empathy with the mere communication of feelings, then empathy collapses into emotional contagion. This and the other breakdowns of empathy are summarized in Figure: How empathy fails, breaks down, misfires.

These breakdowns (and how to overcome them) are considered in detail in Chapter Two of the book Empathy Lessons. To order the book click here: Empathy Lessons.) Read on for more details –

If one takes emotional contagion—basically the communication of emotions, feelings, affects, and experiences—as input to further empathic processing, then emotional contagion (communicability of affect) makes a contribution to empathic understanding.

A vicarious experience of emotion differs from emotional contagion in that one knows that the other person is the source of the emotion. That makes all the difference. I feel anxious or sad or high spirits, because I am with another person who is having such an experience, and I “pick it up” from him. I can then process the vicarious experience, unpacking it for what is so and what is possible in the relationship. This returns empathy to the positive path of empathic understanding, enabling a break through in “getting” what the other person is experiencing. Then the one person can contribute to the other person regulating and mastering the experience.

Or instead of empathic understanding grasping possibility for flourishing and relatedness, empathic understanding can break down in conformity. Humans live and flourish in possibilities; and empathic understanding breaks down as “no possibility,” “stuckness,” and the suffering of “no exit” (one definition of hell in a famous play of the same name by Sartre). One follows the crowd; one does what “one does”; one validates feelings and attitudes according to what “they say”; and, with apologies to Thoreau, lives the life of “quiet desperation” of the “modern mass of men.”

Almost inevitably, when someone is stuck, experiencing shame, guilt, upset, emotional disequilibrium, and so on, the person is fooling himself—has a blind spot—about what is possible. This does not mean that it is easy to be in the person’s situation or for the person to see what is missing. Far from it. But we live in possibilities that we allow to define our constraints and limitations—for example, see the above-cited friend who was married and divorced three times. At the risk of being simple-minded, dear friend, have you considered the alternative—cohabitation? Though this might not be a “silver bullet,” it points to a break through in empathic understanding. If one acknowledges that the things that get in the way of our relatedness are the very rules we make up about our relationships and what is possible within them, then we get freedom to relate to the rules and possibilities precisely as possibilities, not absolute “shoulds.” We stop “shoulding” on ourselves.

For example, if cohabitation is unacceptable due to personal or community standards, then let’s have a conversation for possibility about that (and so on). This brings us to the next break down—the break down in empathic interpretation.

This is the aspect of empathy that corresponds most exactly to the folk definition of empathy—taking a walk in the other person’s shoes. But in the break down of empathic interpretation, one takes that walk with one’s own foot size. This is also called “projection.” Now that can sometimes tell you something useful, because human beings have many things in common; but most times—and especially with most of the tough cases—empathy is going to run off the path. Imaginatively elaborating the metaphor, the other person is literally flat footed, whereas I have a high arch on my foot; the other person is an amputee, a “blade runner” with a high tech prosthesis—a different kind of “feet.” I am a “duck” and have webbed, duck feet; the other person is a “rabbit” and has furry, rabbit feet.

The recommendation? Own your projections. Take back the attributions of your own inner conflicts onto other people. One gets one’s power back along with one’s projections. Stop making up meaning about what is going on with the other person; or, since one probably cannot stop, at least distinguish the meaning—split it off, quarantine it, take distance from it, so that its influence is limited. Absent a sustained conversation with the other person, be humble that you have any idea what is going on with the other person.

Having worked through vicarious experiences, possibilities for overcoming conformity and stuckness, and taken back one’s projections, one is ready to attempt to communicate to the other person one’s sense of their experience. One is going to try to say to the other what one gets from what they told you, giving back to the other one’s sense of their experience. And what happens? Sometimes it works; but other times something gets “lost in translation.”

The breakdown of empathic response occurs within language as one fails to express oneself satisfactorily. I believed that I empathized perfectly with the other person’s struggle and effort, but (in this example) I failed completely to communicate to the other person what I got from listening to her. My empathy remains a tree in the forest that falls without anyone being there. My empathy remains silent, inarticulate, uncommunicative. I get credit for a nice empathic try (assuming that I really have tried); but the relatedness between the persons is not an empathic one. If the other person is willing, then go back to the start and iterate. Learn from one’s mistakes. Try again.

The fact that one failed does not mean that the commitment to empathy is any less strong; just that one did not succeed this time; and one needs to keep trying. It takes practice. Empathy lessons are useful. The exchange in questions was one of them. Learn from one’s mistakes.

Often understanding emerges out of misunderstanding. What I say is clumsy and creates a misunderstanding (in a given context). But when the misunderstanding is clarified and cleaned up, then empathy occurs. In a world that is lacking in empathy, the empathic person is a non-conformist. Be a non-conformist. Break throughs in empathy emerge out of breakdowns. So whenever a breakdown in empathy shows up, do not be discouraged; rather be glad, for a break through is near.

(c) Lou Agosta and the Chicago Empathy Project


Categories: empathic interpretation, empathic receptivity, empathic responsiveness, empathic understanding, Empathy

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