1st Principle Group


Gospel-centered counseling, coaching, and training

Selfish Empathy

“I do not ask the wounded person how he feels, I myself become the wounded person."

-Walt Whitman

This is going to be basic. It will be a review for many of you. But for some reason, my hard heart continues to sludge through the quicksand and act as if it has never heard this stuff before…

The last several weeks I have met incredible resistance when it comes time to really enter into a situation with a friend or loved one. It’s as if my heart is all about the fun stuff, but when the work comes around it suddenly has somewhere else to be. I started noticing a pattern in situations when I was pretending to be empathetic but I knew deep down I was waiting for the conversation to be over...

I don’t like extending empathy if:

-I feel like you’re not being vulnerable: If I catch a whiff that the feelings you are expressing aren’t real, I’m probably going to dish out a healthy dose of fake empathy for those fake feelings.

-I’m feeling unconnected or ignored: “You want me to feel your feelings? How about feeling mine for once?”

-You express the same feelings over and over again: “Hey, I felt that with you yesterday, lets feel something easier today?”

-You resist my attempts to fake empathize with you: “At least I tried…”

In all of these scenarios empathy serves a primary purpose - to make me feel like I’m connecting to you. My extension of empathy has become something to check off of my list - “I’ve met the minimum requirements for being a ‘good listener’ and ‘loving you’ - instead of doing the actual work of connecting and loving.

As a counselor-in-training you would think this kind of struggle disqualifies me from my program (or if Masters programs had Saturday detention I probably could use one to write out “I need to be empathetic” on the marker board 100 times) - but it has truly prompted a deeper look into the depths of my heart and my refusal to connect authentically with people.

Real connection is terrifying. I can’t control the information I tell someone once they possess it. Entering someone else’s story could mean hearing feeling, seeing things I don’t like. I confessed in class this week that I often tell my close friends in hard times “hey, I’m not going to be your counselor, I’m just going to be your friend.” This started as a good thing - therapy and friendship are two different things and my friends aren’t paying me to be their therapist (and there would be some ethical concerns if they wanted to…) It has now morphed into an excuse not to use the skills of attending to someone empathetically. It allows me to give quick advice and not put my judgments on hold to really feel what they are feeling. It’s a total cop out, and if you’re a friend of mine reading this - I owe you a more personal apology probably.

The work of empathy involves a commitment to suspend my desires - even good desires - momentarily to feel. To feel things that are unpleasant, to feel things that I’ve never felt before, to feel things I’d rather fix.

I had a friend tell me recently: “I’m not looking for answers, I just want someone to feel how bad this is with me.” What a statement. How often am I asking for answers from someone when in reality I just don’t want to feel like I’m the only one struggling with the sadness...the brokenness...the fear inside my heart.

Don’t get me wrong, there are times when I’m looking for feedback - I need someone to help me answer a difficult situation in front of me. But more often than not, the advice pales in comparison to someone saying “Wow...you must feel _______.”

They name what my heart can’t put into words, and through that I feel a little less isolated...a little less afraid of what’s ahead. So why is it so hard for me to do this for others? Why do I feel like I’m losing something by suspending all desires to fix and cure? I don’t have some crazy profound answer that’s complicated and enlightening….I think I’m just selfish....

I want to set aside my own desires to hear people more. I want to be a person that others trust will enter into the darkness with them rather than drag them out of it with my own brute strength. I want to better see when my heart is working for its own satisfaction rather than entering someone else’s pain.

How can we better enter into each other’s pain unselfishly?