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Friday, June 04, 2010

The Darker Side of Empathy
I've been thinking a lot about empathy.  It's difficult to talk about empathy in woo woo circles because the lines are blurred between garden variety empathy and the extra-sensory abilities of the empath.  Just for the sake of simplicity, I am not diving into the empath realm here.  Instead, I'd rather focus for the moment on the human quality of empathy and its shortcomings for tarot readers.  Empathy has long been touted as essential for anyone whose occupation or passion involves dealing with people.  From doctors to salespeople to customer service agents, empathy for one's client is seen as an essential element to productive communication and problem solving.  I agree.  Identifying with someone else's feelings in any given matter is crucial to understanding how to help someone and if helping someone is your goal then you sure as hell better try to walk a mile in their shoes. 

Empathy is the capacity to recognize or understand another's state of mind or emotion. It is often characterized as the ability to "put oneself into another's shoes", or to in some way experience the outlook or emotions of another being within oneself. It may be described metaphorically as an emotional kind of resonance or mirroring.  Empathy is distinct from sympathy, pity, emotional contagion, and telepathy, which is what we describe as "empaths." Sympathy is the feeling of compassion for another, the wish to see them better off or happier, often described as "feeling sorry" for someone. Pity is feeling that another is in trouble and in need of help as they cannot fix their problems themselves. Emotional contagion is when a person imitatively 'catches' the emotions that others are showing without necessarily recognizing this is happening. Telepathy is not a psychological phenomenon, but a paranormal phenomenon, whereby emotions or other mental states can be read directly, without needing to infer, or perceive expressive clues about the other person. Pity is, "Things are bad for you, you seem as though you need help." Sympathy is, "I'm sorry for your sadness, I wish to help." Emotional Contagion is, "You feel sad and now I feel sad." Empathy is, "I recognize how you feel." Apathy is, "I don't care how you feel. " Telepathy is, "I read your sadness without you expressing it to me in any normal way."

I think we can mix these up quite a bit.   Empathy is not merely the recognition of another's feelings but the ability to identify with and actually feel those emotions without it being emotional contagion or telepathy.  A natural way to do this is to imagine oneself in the other's predicament and if that is not sufficient due to a lack of personal experience, to imagine or remember an event or experience from one's own life where similar feelings were involved.  In tarot terms, the Queen of Swords would be great at empathizing because she has the objectivity of the air element in the Swords suit in combination with the element of water due to her Queenliness. The Queen of Cups would be prone to emotional contagion, though she may be more likely to be an empath.  The Queen of Pentacles would be a great sympathizer and pitier.  I think the Queen of Wands may co-opt others feelings for her own and run with them, and therein lies one of the major pitfalls of empathy.

Empathy is such a wonderful and valuable quality to have and develop that it hardly seems like it would have a bad side.  What could be wrong with identifying with others feelings?  In my own practice I have noticed that when I too strongly identify with a client, I run the risk of over-identifying and co-opting their unique experiences as my own.  I then may expect them to process their experience in the same way I have and therefore when they respond differently or make different choices or decisions than I would in a similar situation, I may respond angrily or in disappointment.  I've suddenly lost the crucial element to effective empathy: objectivity.

In this excellent article by by Kelly A. Edwards, Critiquing Empathy the author describes what I believe to be the very rabbit hole one must be vividly aware of when wading into empathy's pools.  While the essay focuses on doctor-patient relationships, the concepts presented are applicable to any relationship:

Entering any relationship with the aim of identifying with another's experience provides a replicative, not a productive, focus. By engaging in this way, we are trying to know the other in order to develop further insight into the patient's illness. This approach conceives of the other (the patient) as a knowable source that can be mined for information and the self (the physician) as a clean, reflective slate. It takes attention off the self (the physician)—where awareness and responsibility must reside—and fixes it on the other, who can be known only partially. This approach also effectively turns a dialogue into a monologue by focusing on only one of the selves engaged in the relation....

To approach another as knowable, or to act as if one has entered another's experience, can be a very dominating stance.[emphasis mine] This pitfall stems from the problematic ownership of another's experience that is implied in most conceptions of empathy. If the aim of engaging empathically is to know the other, what are the costs of getting it wrong? It is unlikely that a physician, a relative stranger and one with limited knowledge of this patient's life, will get it right much of the time. The dangers here follow from holding a person to too tight a script. Identifying with another effectively limits them to our (limited) understanding.

Rather than remaining open to the "real of the other," the clinician with empathy co-opts the patient's experience by saying blithely, "Oh, I know just how you feel." And again, to what effect? Patients, perhaps feeling misunderstood and alienated, build walls between themselves and their well-meaning physicians. Physicians, encountering a difficult patient, become frustrated.

Bravo! Exactly! How many times have we encountered others who, with genuinely benevolent intent, have devalued our experiences by saying just that? Doesn't it just get on your last nerve to hear someone who couldn't possibly know how you feel say, "I know just how you feel?" Do you? Do you, really? No, of course you don't because you are filtering my experience through your own perceptions, your own personality, your own ideas of morality. You can't help it. I can't help it. It's how we navigate through life.When we presume to "know" another, we are presuming much.  That's not to say we can't relate, understand, or seek to help, but when we cross that line into identifying with another's experiences and feelings we are treading on very holy ground and I feel a huge measure of humility and respect are in order.

As a tarot reader, I can so easily fall into the trap of empathy when I'm presented with a query on a subject or situation that I am intimately familiar with in my own life.  Sometimes a client has come to me with a situation that so eerily mirrors an experience I've had that I almost want to put the cards aside and just share what I did, just cut to the chase, right? Wrong! No matter how closely one's circumstances and experiences externally match another's it is not the same situation precisely because it is not happening only to you, but also to  another person.  Two people can experience precisely the same event and come away with very different stories.  Which is not to say one cannot offer helpful advice or suggestions to someone in a situation or experience very much like one you have come through.  I've been assisted many times by people sharing their wealth of experiential wisdom.  However, the ones that have helped the most haven't been the ones that claim to know how I feel, but have simply acknowledge my feelings in such a way that I know they empathize, but who also recognize that how I choose to navigate this experience may be very different, and not wrong, from how they muddled through theirs.  They found treasure and so would like to share it with me and that's great, but you know what they say about one man's trash being another one's treasure works in reverse as well.


  1. Touche!!

    Ginny, excellent exploration on the various shades of empathy. It really is a blurred area with many gifts and pitfalls.

    What you have described is closely related to the "Tarot Counseling" skills that I promote for us as readers. The more aware we are of these boundary issues (my feelings or yours?) the more empowering and truly supportive our work with others can be.

    If I could add another dimension to this topic. Empathy is a useful tool for gathering information and revealing facts. It is the conclusions, assumptions and actions readers make that tend to slip into boundary violations.

    In Spirit,

  2. That's an important distinction, Katrina. Empathy is an excellent way to understand and comprehend the depth and breadth of another's situation. Without it, I don't think we are capable of that understanding and that is crucial to being able to help them. Using empathy to create solutions, though, isn't as helpful because it disrespects the other's unique ways and the need for them to follow their own path through the situation.

    The "Advice" position in many tarot spreads can be tricky this way. The reader must be careful, SO careful, not to insert his/her own feelings and experience into the interpretation of that card.

  3. Very useful distinction Ginny. Specially important to keep in mind when reading for close friends and family. I try hard to maintain the balance when reading for them but am not always successful. Specially because at time I feel so much for them that it becomes "personal". Most strange is that I find easier to be the "Queen for swords" for myself than my husband (more prone to be the Queen of cups when reading for him)!

  4. Brilliant article, thank you.

    The Yijing taught me to think of this in terms of creating an inner space that's set aside for the person I'm reading for. My usual reactions, opinions, things I 'know', are outside the space... which doesn't mean I can't share them, just that I don't get them confused with the reading.

    (Tarot faith - yes, this definitely gets harder the more I know and care for someone.)

    Yi's image for this was hexagram 31 - Influence - whose internal landscape is a lake above a mountain. The mountain has open space for the lake, and 'a noble one accepts people with emptiness.' But without that inner solidity, there'd be neither mountain nor lake, just a sea of mud.

    (And as someone prone to "emotional contagion" through an empathic gift, I've taken quite a few mud-baths...)

  5. Hillary,

    You have described this so poetically. Yijing (I Ching) and Taoism are my teachers. Thank you for the reference to #31 - Influence on this topic.

    In Spirit,

  6. What a lush, rich perspective :-) There's so much food for thought here that I need to read this at least three times to absorb ... Here's another take on empathy, arising from a startling question that arose in me ...

    thank you for such a beautiful site -- Must explore!

  7. Ginny, what am important topic! I agree that the situations you mention are some of the major pitfalls of the reading relationship. I'm so glad you brought them up.

    I think Katrina added something very important (with which you agreed) - that it's the conclusions, assumptions and actions of the readers that are often at fault - not the empathy itself, which simply "is".

    How can one "critique empathy" when it describes a natural function of the brain (in part through mirror neurons) that influences most human and some animal social interactions?

    As I see it, the problems you describe stem from a lack of training in recognizing and handling our empathic response in the most beneficial manner in the reading situation.

    You are so right that humility and respect regarding someone else's emotions are essential to a truly helpful empathic response and preclude running rampant over or appropriating them. I think a great reader learns, as you mention, to recognize the response in themselves and then applies the resulting knowledge sensitively and skillfully in the reading to first of all witness that person's state, not co-opt or control it.

    As tarot readers we often call ourselves empaths because we are more sensitive to others' emotions, but we are rarely trained in what to do with this sensitivity.

    I agree that empathy is an ability that's most associated with Cups and applied via the Queens, but I think that the most skillful application of empathic awareness is one that draws on and then balances all four Queenly qualities.

    So the question is—how does a reader stay open, humble and respectful when swayed by an empathic response? If inserting our own story about it is not usually helpful (with which I agree!) then *what do we do* when we feel the urge to say, "I know how you feel" and proceed to tell our version or give advice based on derived assumptions. I suggest that the 'trap' is not the empathy itself; it lies in not really knowing what to do with it!

    I hope you will continue with this important topic. Great going!


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