What Blocks Our Empathy?

Recently my lack of empathy for someone really surprised me.

No matter how I cognitively reframed the subject, I was stuck.  It wasn’t until I became more consciously present to the other feelings  I had about this person that I was able to soften the picture. I felt uncomfortable with my lack of kindness in this situation and wanted to explore what was blocking it.  When we feel this way, it’s safe to assume that judgments about others are driving our feelings.  In this case my lens was fixed on specific behaviors that I strongly disliked.
 It’s all I saw at that moment.

One of the most important things I have learned to regain clarity and climb out of emotional ruts is to activate liberal doses of self-empathy. The judging mind often doesn’t differentiate – it wants a target to seek relief from emotional discomfort. If someone else isn’t the target – then I can be.  When I’m in the self-judging mode I can’t possibility understand why I am reacting to someone else – it’s a vicious loop – I judge myself for judging them.

Physicist Leonard Mlodinow, author of Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior observes, All of our social perceptions that seem real are made up of data from our past experiences, beliefs, expectations and even desires. They are not a direct result of what we experience but rather are constructed by our minds.”
In a culture, attached to the rational and still suspicious of the emotional, a statement like Mlodinow’s can seem incredulous. If my social perception isn’t “real,” what is? How much does my rational thought correctly perceive others? Are my past experiences distorting my perceptions?

“Yes, says Mlodinow, our pasts definitely affect us on a subliminal level. I like to use the analogy of vision to describe how our unconscious might create reality. When you look out into the world, you see what seems to be a clear and 3D image of it. It seems real to you, but it’s not really real. It’s not literally what’s out there. Our unconscious mind is doing all of this processing. It does it instantaneously and without any effort, so we just think that what we see out there is real.”
While it’s unsettling to realize that our unconscious minds drive so much of our feelings and behavior the more conscious we are about those influences the more we free ourselves from repetitive patterns. Our habit, for example, to prove our thinking right (confirmation bias) is  a major factor in reinforcing our “blind spots,” and unless we learn to mindfully unravel our tangled mindset about a situation, we’re likely to keep repeating them.

The great Scottish psychiatrist, R.D. Laing, author of Knots, expresses our dilemma perfectly, The range of what we think and do is limited by what we fail to notice. And because we fail to notice that we fail to notice, there is little we can do to change; until we notice how failing to notice shapes our thoughts and deeds.” 

To Have Empathy for You, I Have to be Able to SEE You

The reasons to want to respond empathetically  instead of automatically with less noble and generous feelings are deeply personal. We mostly live in a world where empathetic connections are not naturally made or even encouraged. Competition is still the national ethos in the U.S. and life online in a digital world can often be caustic, even ugly.
While there is growing consensus among scientists and psychologists that empathy is a “natural response” the idea is still considered “soft.”  In his book, Wired to Care, author Dev Patnaik, explains that as “sophisticated as our neurological systems for detecting the feelings of others might be, we’ve created a corporate world that strives to eliminate the more human elements of business. Companies systemically dull the natural power that each of us has to connect with other people.” This example can be expanded to include many cultural and institutional systems that demand certain characteristics, hierarchy and conformity to maintain a status-quo.

Marshall Rosenberg, founder of the NVC (Non Violent Communication) movement, reminds us, “ It’s difficult for us to see the effect of our “habitat” unless we purposefully stop to consider them” If we want to more spontaneously evoke our “natural response,” we often have to slog through the layers of conditioning that influence how we see the world and others in it.
If conditioning is a set of learned responses (family, schools, religion, economic & social status, education, work, culture) then changing our responses to the world requires unlearning them once their effect becomes conscious. Principally, this means uncovering the beliefs that hold them all in place.
Mostly I can’t see you because all I see is my conditioned response to your thinking, feelings and actions. There’s little depth in this vision of you. I can’t see, let alone begin to understand, your experience with this veil of my past (and that of the cultural forces that shaped (shape) my thinking) over my eyes.

Some Blocks to Look For

  • Distraction, Busyness, Rushing.  Empathy requires our attention. You have to notice what you don’t notice. True, an empathetic response can be completely spontaneous, and those treasured moments speak volumes about what is important to us, but more often we aren’t activating our empathy because we’re just not paying attention.  You’ve probably heard the oft-used quote, “You have to be present, to win.”
  • Your Body Can Block You. Your physiological state is as likely to block your empathy as your cognitive state.  The work of Dr. Stephen Porges, Professor of Psychiatry at The University of Illinois, has found that unless we turn off our defenses our physiology will blur our perception of the world with different psychological experiences. Our emotional state at any time (anxiety, frustration, exhaustion, overwhelm, anger, annoyance, impatience, calmness, etc) sets the physiological stage for perception. So walking around in a state of agitation and irritation literally blocks our vision of what we see.
  • Awareness of Social Distance.  This block is tricky. Not everyone is trapped by it, but it clearly plays a big role in the conditioning of our experience and what we see. “Social distance” pertains to our deep experiential position in social groups – who we identify with. Everyone is subject to the norms of their social group (position, class, ethnicity, nationality, religious affiliation, economic status, gender, etc).  What’s important about this according to social scientists is that the “distance” we experience is not simply locational, but affective.  Due to lack of experience with certain social groups, we simply do not feel the same way about them about those we see as insiders. Discussing the “micropolitics of interpersonal attention’, in his popular New York Times articles, Rich People Just Care Less, author Daniel Goleman writes, “Turning a blind eye. Giving someone the cold shoulder. Looking down on people. Seeing right through them. These metaphors for condescending or dismissive behavior are more than just descriptive. They suggest, to a surprisingly accurate extent, the social distance between those with greater power and those with less — a distance that goes beyond the realm of interpersonal interactions and may exacerbate the soaring inequality in the United States. A growing body of recent research shows that people with the most social power pay scant attention to those with little such power. Higher-status people are also more likely to express disregard, through facial expressions, and are more likely to take over the conversation and interrupt or look past the other speaker.”
  •  Avoidance of Pain.  When we become more mindful of what we notice, what we pay attention to is a  conscious choice.  I notice many people these days say they cannot tolerate the news – too much suffering in the world. Understandable. I, too, am limiting more of my exposure to certain information lately.  Some people explain their avoidance of certain situations as “compassion fatigue.”  A 24/7 digital world brings pain to our doorstep within minutes with little end in sight. We feel our lack of power to affect change when we are faced with unrelenting bad news. Our internal resources feel overwhelmed. The term, compassion fatigue, typically associated with healthcare providers and caregivers, especially those dealing with trauma, is increasingly being misused to describe the average person’s exhaustion from everyday stressors. The term is in danger of being a catch-all  used to describe what we do not want to deal with emotionally, despite the degree of severity.

All of these “blocks” to our empathy are within our power to change.  We can learn, through deliberate practice, to see more of others and in the process, feel more. Responding to the world with more empathy doesn’t diminish our capacity to act more rationally or turn us into emotional sponges.   We are, in fact, able to see more, hear more, act with greater clarity and exercise a greater range of emotions when we see the world with more empathy. Regardless of the assuredly positive impact  our empathy has on others, we give ourselves more freedom of choice when we see and act from this place.  And every time I do, I believe I make my world a bit bigger.

Einstein spoke to these questions in 1950 when he wrote, A human being is a part of the whole called by us “Universe,” a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts, his feelings, as something separate from the rest—a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. The delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty. Nobody’s able to achieve this completely, but striving for such achievement is in itself a part of the liberation and a foundation for inner security.”

Thanks for reading,

Louise Altman,Intentional Communication Consultants
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  1. Hi Dorlee,
    So pleased you resonated with the post and delighted to get your comment. Yes, yes and yes, mindfulness is a KEY component to “noticing” what we don’t notice. And with more studies
    showing the positive effects of mindfulness practice with alleviating pain (and I include mental pain here as well). I also believe that mindfulness – strengthening our ability to be and stay present without emotional flooding, helps us to practice more self-empathy and compassion – which we all need to do. We teach children to self-soothe but suddenly at some mysterious age we send a message to “put away childish things.” So many negative messages about feelings in this culture.
    Thanks again and hope to see you in these pages again soon!

  2. Hi Samantha,
    What a rich response with so many interesting points.
    First, I think you’re right – empathy (like many other emotions) is complicated (although it can also be very spontaneous). I’ve been working with it for years and the more I look the more layers I see. We throw around terms like Empathy Deficit Disorder like we really understand the complexity of that level of lack of empathy. Empathy, I believe, is very much driven by two things, our physiological state and our beliefs. Beliefs are major blockers of feeling and what we believe about the “object” of our empathy really matters. I think this can also contribute to the overly porous boundaries you referred to as too much empathy. I’ve seen situations where people self-judge if they don’t feel empathy towards someone – or hold conflicting feelings about them.
    Physiological state is also very important – the emotional/physical state we’re in plays a big role in opening us up or closing us down. MANY people in this culture report feeling generally overwhelmed and exhausted – so in a way, they’re not noticing others in distress, is a form of self-preservation.
    Finally, to your last point, I think it’s a very good “universal” example of why experiencing a major emotional event, like losing a loved one, or the serious illness of a child, etc., is often a major heart opener.
    One thread I plan to follow with all of this is around the topic of trauma, which I have gotten more interested in – mostly because I think it is grossly misunderstood, ill-defined and widely under diagnosed. It’s often very difficult for people carrying trauma to let others in – which empathy requires.
    Very stimulating – thanks

    • The treasure is definitely in the dialog! Look at what we keep uncovering!? haha
      You said:
      ‘Beliefs are major blockers of feeling and what we believe about the “object” of our empathy really matters.’
      YES! In addition, ‘thinking’ is often a way we can use to NUMB our feelings! One of my favorite coping mechanisms I learned as a child was to jump OUT of my body and IN to my head (and my imagination) in order to escape painful feelings during abuse. i.e. dissociation
      Even as an adult, there are many times I still have to remind myself to ‘get back inside my body’ because it’s so easy for me to dissociate. And this requires me to become PRESENT before I can ‘reattach’ inside of my own body and accept what my feelings and what is currently going on.
      As a child, I had NO CHOICE but to escape the body. As adults, when the danger is no longer present, this tendency can prevent us from ACTING on our feelings in order to do what we need to do to protect ourselves.
      So yes, our beliefs and ‘thinking’ or even escaping into our own imaginations can be MAJOR blockers of our feelings.
      You also wrote:
      ‘I think this can also contribute to the overly porous boundaries you referred to as too much empathy. I’ve seen situations where people self-judge if they don’t feel empathy towards someone – or hold conflicting feelings about them.’
      This is very true as well! In my own personal experience with abuse and trauma growing up, the problem lies in not knowing where one person ends and another person begins. An abused child is taught they have no RIGHTS to themselves. Someone else has full permission and access to DO whatever they WANT to the child and the child can’t do anything about it except to ENDURE. And abused children are often taught to ‘caretake’ the feelings of the adults and so emotional enmeshment is prevalent. So a child (as an example) can easily FEEL the emotions of the adults around them and unfortunately, will learn to take responsibility for how those adults FEEL as well. When this practice is carried into adulthood, we have to UNLEARN this habit in order to be able to function in healthier ways. We have to learn that it is NOT our ‘job’ to be responsible for someones feelings although we can empathize with them, etc. (not referring to roles in nursing or other healthcare type settings where we must do so in order to meet needs of patient in pain etc)
      This is also very true as well when you said:
      ‘Physiological state is also very important – the emotional/physical state we’re in plays a big role in opening us up or closing us down. MANY people in this culture report feeling generally overwhelmed and exhausted – so in a way, they’re not noticing others in distress, is a form of self-preservation.’
      Yes, some of us learned to care take and take on TOO MUCH responsibility for what does not belong to us and doing this chronically leads to exhaustion and as you said, self-preservation.
      Sometimes we feel TOO MUCH and in order to find relief we will do things to disconnect from the overwhelm, including being alone if necessary.
      Your reference to trauma adds a great deal of depth to the discussion and I’ve already touched on that topic a little bit in my comments.
      Thanks again for tackling such a complicated subject Louise!
      Incredibly valuable dialog.

      • Incredibly valuable dialog.
        Yes it is ~ and thanks so much Samantha for sharing openly about your past experiences – I know there are so many people who hold much pain and cannot – so thank you.
        What you’ve written provides more motivation for all of us gaining a deeper understanding of trauma – in all its forms. I believe (and so do many trauma experts) that there are millions of
        people walking around with unexplored childhood trauma. I recently read that even early major surgeries (which I had) can create lifelong trauma.
        Your comments also bring up another VERY important part of the exploring empathy – which I most certainly need to write about – empathy doesn’t mean taking responsibility for other people’s feelings. The discussion about boundaries is critical.
        Once again heartfelt thanks for sharing – and adding – so much to this discussion. Your insights are invaluable!

  3. Hi Dorlee,
    Apologies for the delay in response – so pleased to see you here. Now that most people are starting to realize the role distractions play in how we relate to the world – what we respond to and what we don’t – mindfulness is becoming more and more essential. As you point out – for everything – our bodies, emotional reactions and the quickly becoming rarity – attention. I also think it can play a major role in helping us ALL pay greater attention to our biases. And we all have biases – being conditioned – inevitably by the cultures we’re raised and living in. So much research is showing the insidious ways those biases show up – and we need to pay closer attention – not in a judgmental way, but as reminders of what we want in our lives – and what we contribute to the greater good.
    Thanks again!

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