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  • Writer's pictureRenee LaVallee McKenna,MA

The Problem With Empathy

Updated: Apr 14, 2020

Is it OK to be peaceful or even happy, when people in the world are suffering? Should we feel guilty about our good fortune in the face of another’s pain?

I’ve noticed a disturbing trend in our pandemic infused culture, it’s this idea of feeling bad if we’re doing okay when other people are having a hard time. There’s even a belief that withholding pleasure from ourselves may be an act of solidarity or compassion.

Hiding what’s good in our lives so others won’t feel bad is not helpful.

One of my favorite quotes from Marianne Williamson, author of A Woman's Worth and Return to Love, speaks to this directly. She says:

Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us. It is in everyone and as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.

Many of us are emotionally and energetically sensitive. We can feel the suffering that’s in the world. There is a lot of fear and angst as a result of this pandemic. There are a lot of people sick and dying. It’s really intense.

A recent social media spoke to this unearned, unhelpful guilt. The woman was talking about how she’s feeling really peaceful and connected with family in this time of sheltering at home. Yet, she feels really bad talking about what’s good in her life right now, like it’s rubbing salt in other people’s wounds.

She’s divorced out of an abusive relationship and now she’s in a happy, healthy marriage. Girlfriend, the best thing we can do is give other people hope. Sharing our success is invaluable. When we have suffered and escaped, that hope is probably the best thing we can offer. Joy is incredibly motivating, nourishing and empowering for people, especially when they are in the pit.

Where do we get the idea that our joy brings other people pain? Certainly, the contrast between my suffering and your joy and prosperity can really shine the light on the pain and dysfunction in my own life. I might not like to shine a light on what’s not going well.

However, if my circumstances are terrible, it’s Ok to feel bad about them. Feelings help us process stuff. Feelings are a digestive process and an important source of information. In fact, the pain of feeling bad about my circumstances motivates me to reach out for support or to make difficult but important changes. It’s generally only when the pain of being where I am is greater than the fear of moving into the unknown, that I’m willing to ask for help or grow.

Even the pain of grief and loss is very important. Death is a powerful teacher. It reminds us that time is ticking. We need to live and love deeply now. Life is fatal and accepting the infinite process of death and rebirth is a soul strengthening, character building process.

Feeling guilty about having a good life in the face of other people’s suffering is an aspect of what I call energy matching. Energy matching is a really normal human response in relationship or in groups. People like to one resonate on the same wavelength as others. Conversations and interactions flow more smoothly when people are in the same space emotionally. Energy matching is when we match the emotional, intellectual or energetic state of the person or group we are with.

Unfortunately, it’s very common to energy match to lower vibrations like anger, negativity and fear. We can easily slip into gossip, bad news and fearful projections of the future, if we aren’t mindful. I believe the most loving thing we can do is to call people to resonate up toward kindness, hope and compassion. This doesn’t mean shoving good fortune in the face of someone in poverty. It’s about finding ways to share our power and prosperity that are genuinely helpful.

For me, this period of sheltering at home has been a time of introspection and slowing down. Some days I’m nagging my teens to do their schoolwork and enjoying having them home for lunch. Other days I’ve felt like I’m on retreat. The weather has been really beautiful in San Francisco on and off. I’ve been meditating and journaling a lot, doing some much needed yard work. I’m still working, still seeing clients, recording podcasts. But, there’s a silence that’s really valuable and nourishing for me. This is a special time. Even if it's really challenging for some, that doesn't take away the value of this respite from regular life for me.

I’m well aware that many people are having a very different experience. My son’s friend is one of 6 kids in a small house. It’s super chaotic, her parent’s fight frequently and she’s a very sensitive person. She can’t get away and I know this is super stressful for her.

I know someone struggling with addiction. He’s relapsed on drugs. Another client has gained weight because being socially disconnected from friends has brought up some deep loneliness that he medicates with food.

As we move through life, each of us has our own perspective on an experience. 7 people, 7 million people or 7 billion people can all have the same circumstance, but they are each going to have their own unique, individual experience. We all have our inner work to do and life is constantly calling us to grow through situations and people we encounter.

The strengths and challenges in our life are not coincidental. We each have things to let go of and new ways to develop. The first lines of Marianne Williamson’s famous quote state that,

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It’s our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us.

It’s easy to stay small, to resist change, to curse the reality of death. But it is unwise to resist the flow of life, no matter how harsh she may seem. It is actually easier to allow life to change us, than it is to resist. Pain is unavoidable, but suffering is optional. Resistance to reality causes suffering.

So how do I maintain or manage my own light in the face of great darkness?

The most powerful place to sit in any kind of disparity is compassion. There’s a difference between compassion and empathy and it’s an important difference. Empathy is when I actually feel another person’s feelings. I put myself in their position and feel the feelings as if they are my own.

Compassion is when I have understanding for another person’s situation and I have empathy for their feelings, but I understand that they are not my feelings. I have a desire to be present and helpful. The problem with empathy is that in feeling another person’s feelings and putting myself in their shoes, I’m actually running there’s life circumstances through my own individual filter. I’m projecting my experience on to them. Again, you can have 7 people in the same situation have 7 different experiences.

In empathy, we often project our own unresolved emotional issues, the pain of how we would feel in a certain circumstance, onto the other person. We assume others would feel like we would feel if the circumstance happened to us, which may or may not be true.

I remember when my parents died. My mother passed in December and my father died the following June. Lots of people projected the grief and loss they would feel if their parents had died 6 months apart. My experience is my own.

My relationships with my parents had been extremely difficult. When my mother called to tell me that she was going on hospice, I told her I wanted to visit. She said she didn’t want to see me. I went anyway. She died 10 days later. The saddest thing about my mother’s death is that I wasn’t sad. We were never close. Her death was a relief. As unusual as that might sound, it is my emotional truth.

My parents were divorced. My father had remarried and his new wife was very insecure. As a result, my father cut contact with me and my kids. When he died, we had only spoken once in seven years. This was his choice, not mine. His death, too, was a relief. I no longer bore the burden of trying to relate with these extremely dysfunctional people.

I rarely bothered to tell people these complicated and intimate facts at the time. Most just assumed that I was devastated and grieving. Almost no one openly asked how I was feeling. I’m sure they would have been surprised by my answer if they did.

In compassion, I extend myself to understand as best I can, humbly knowing that I can never really know how another person feels. Compassion has the added value of respect for the other person’s unique process and a desire to deeply understand and be fully present for their experience outside of my own.

We live in a culture that has a poor relationship with pain. Generally, we believe that pain should be avoided or eradicated at all costs. Certainly there are times to medicate pain, but there’s a risk involved. The risk is that we don’t get the information that pain offers. Pain tells us that something is wrong, that a correction is being called for, that personal growth is required.

Again, pain is a great motivator. Pain makes us willing to do and try things that we would never be willing to do or try if we were feeling okay. There are many ways we medicate our pain. We can ease emotional and existential suffering with drugs and alcohol, addictive relationships, food, TV, overworking, social media, shopping, even spiritual and religious practice can be used as a way to leave our bodies and deny reality.

Each of us has a roadmap for our life. This map is our own experience. Joy is the compass that pulls us forward to the open road of our own personal growth and pain lets us know we hit the guardrail or are driving in the wrong direction. Joy and pain are available as information for us in all areas of our lives, if we pay attention and learn their language.

Part of the work of becoming an emotional grown-up is to recognize the gifts our own feelings hold. So while it’s important and even imperative to have compassion for the suffering of others, if we move too deeply into empathy then we lose our own ground. We can get stuck in projecting our ideas of suffering onto others and get pulled out of our own power. Then we’re rendered incapable of being genuinely helpful to those in need.

We are here to help each other by bringing our authentic self into the world. The best thing we can do is to be in our own truth, grounded in our best self and bring our unique gifts in service of others. We all have gifts to bring and one of the best things we can do is share our stories of hope and healing with others.

Whatever anybody’s reality, that’s their karmic path. We can absolutely be helpful to them, but we need to put our own oxygen mask on first. It’s important to be compassionate for the pain of others. It’s also important to have the correct perspective on what we can actually do without becoming overwhelmed. The ultimate reality of life is complex beyond comprehension. Each person has their own unique path and soul level work to do, no matter how tragic their circumstances seem.

I’ve been in some pretty dark circumstances myself. I’ve been homeless, filed bankruptcy, I’ve been divorced twice and buried a lot of people. I’ve suffered all kinds of addictions. I know about difficulty. I also know about prosperity and success and joy and that’s been my individual path. There are a lot of ways to understand each soul’s journey through this lifetime as a human.

In my own personal growth work and in my work with clients, I don’t believe that people’s life circumstances are ever a coincidence or a mistake, no matter how dire or how difficult. My belief is that, on a soul level we are drawn to our life situation for many reasons. We incarnate into the particular religion, culture, race, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, body shape and family situation to grow and learn and let go of exactly what we need to.

I don’t believe we are victims of circumstance, from our birth experience to our state at the moment or our death and everything in between. On a personality level, no one chooses abuse, neglect, injustice. But on a soul level, it is incredibly empowering to take responsibility for our life circumstance as if we chose them. On a soul level, I believe we do choose our life path. From this perspective we can ask, “Where am I being called to grow?” When we are willing to grow and evolve, the Universe rises to support us in amazing ways. This is not theory, it is my experience.

We all have challenges, but we have our gifts and talents, too. We all have baggage to work out and things to learn. I came with a lot of bags and I'm still unpacking. It’s all part of this very complicated, individualized karma. Over and over again, every minute, we have opportunities to grow and heal and to transform- all of us.

I’ve dedicated my life to helping people grow and heal. I’m neither smart enough nor arrogant enough to pretend that I understand what each soul’s journey is through this life. I do know that I can be helpful. I know that being in a place of compassion is the best place to be. I know that being in my own truth of who I am and bringing that into the world is my job and being overwhelmed or overrun by what I perceive to be the suffering of others renders me useless and impotent.

There is always hope as long as we're still breathing. We limit the possibilities of the Unlimited so much as humans. Our job to shine our own soul light onto others. To offer that the possibility for change is ever present.

There’s a lot of prophecy and future projections and predictions right now. The one thing I know about the future predictions is that whatever I think is going to happen, never happens.

The world needs your light, your unique, quirky, broken brilliant self. It needs your truth. It needs your best self and all the good stuff you have bring.

Be a beacon to those that are suffering. Use what’s good in your life to help others. Expand your empathy into compassion that holds hope and constructive action. Compassion is the safest and most powerful place to be and it doesn’t make the burden of others heavier it lightens the load for everyone.

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