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We all know empathy is important. It’s good for our relationships, important for our mental health, and helps us feel more connected to the world and ourselves. I know many Becoming Who You Are readers (and me!) are involved in or pursuing caring professions out of a desire to help other people. But is it possible to have too much empathy?
In this post, I want to talk about two concepts I found super helpful as someone who a) wants to be a good, supportive listener, and b) is sensitive to how other people are feeling (that doesn’t mean I’m always sensitive—I’m capable of being insensitive too! Rather, I usually have a good sense of when someone is happy/relaxed/uncomfortable/sad/genuine etc.). In There Is No Good Card For This: What to Say and Do When Life is Scary, Awful, and Unfair to People You Love by Emily McDowell and Kelsey Crowe, the authors talk about the difference between emotional resonance and identical resonance, two experiences that are similar but lead to very different results.
The difference between emotional resonance and identical resonance
“We also have to feel for that person. This is what emotions expert Dr. Paul Ekman calls EMOTIONAL RESONANCE, and it is not to be confused with “identical resonance,” where someone feels the exact thing as someone else. That person’s support would be highly unhelpful. If you see someone’s hand on fire, for example, and feel your hand burn just as intensely, then your capacity to fetch some ice and treat your friend is greatly diminished, because you’re focusing on your own flaming hand.”
When we think of empathy, we usually think of emotional resonance: being able to understand how someone is feeling and appreciate what it could be like to walk in their shoes. But, as we can see from the quote above, that’s not where the story ends. It sounds counter-intuitive, but true empathy comes with a degree of emotional distance.
We can witness someone else’s feelings without becoming merged with them ourselves. That doesn’t mean we don’t have an emotional response to their situation or what they’re sharing. It might move us to tears, it might evoke feelings of sadness or anger within us. But that is our own emotional response, which differs from taking on the emotions of the person we’re empathising with.
What causes identical resonance?
One thing that can lead to identical resonance rather than emotional resonance is we have similar unhealed or unprocessed trauma around a similar situation. If someone is talking about a situation that triggers unresolved feelings or trauma from our own lives, it will be difficult for us to truly empathise with them without experiencing identical resonance. We might also struggle with boundaries: to feel connected to someone, we lose the psychological separation that marks us as a different individual.
This is why (good) therapy training courses focus on personal growth and self-awareness as much as actual counselling skills, and it’s also why I’m generally not a fan of co-counselling (where you take turns having counselling “sessions” with peers). We don’t know what we don’t know and identical resonance isn’t something we can control if we’re not conscious of our own feelings, experiences, and unresolved issues (or trying to be aware as much as possible). Although it’s a cliché, it’s true that we need to take care of ourselves first and put on our own oxygen masks before we can help others with theirs.
How to return to emotional resonance
So what can we do if we realise we’re experiencing identical resonance rather than emotional resonance?
As I just mentioned above, the first step is awareness. Physician, heal thyself :) Many people who are caring and drawn to help others are people who have also experienced trauma, adverse experiences, or painful challenges themselves. While this is an admirable way to turn bad into good, we want to be sure we’re not using our desire to help as a form of spiritual bypassing: focusing on helping others so we don’t have to address our own painful issues, or out of a desire to feel needed in order to prop up feelings of low self-worth.
2. Put on your own oxygen mask first
We can only take other people as far as we’re willing to take ourselves. If we want to be supportive of other people, one of the best things we can do is to sort out our own issues (and do so because we’re worth sorting out, not just because we want to help others too). Own your own story—all of it. The good, the bad, and the ugly. Be your own best friend. Spend time giving love and support to yourself. Become aware of your trigger points.
When I was in counselling training, the tutor told us that part of our development as counsellors was to become aware of which people we wouldn’t take on as clients because of our own situations and histories. These were the people with whom we wouldn’t be able to compartmentalise our feelings in order to hold space for them—right now, anyway. The same applies to us as supportive friends, family members, and spouses. We don’t need to be a superhero and support everyone. It’s the kindest thing for ourselves and the other person to know when it’s time to say: I’m not able to support you with this right now.
3. Resist the urge to problem-solve
There is a third kind of resonance called reactive resonance. In other words, jumping straight into problem-solving mode. “Oh, you have an issue? Let me solve it for you!” As Steven Covey says in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” Chronic problem-solving can be more disempowering than empowering as it can send the message to the other person: you’re not capable of sorting this out yourself.
In certain contexts, problem-solving has a place and can be more helpful than just nodding and empathising. If someone has a practical issue, for example, and we have the knowledge that could help them resolve it, that’s a time when we can successfully marry emotional resonance with reactive resonance (“Your washing machine flooded your kitchen? Yikes! Have you checked the drainage pipe for blockages?”)
More often than not, though, if we want the other person to feel seen, heard, and understood, we need to show them that we see, hear and understand them first before rushing in with potential solutions.
In most situations, emotional resonance is the most helpful kind of compassion we can offer someone. True empathy requires understanding and awareness of ourselves as much as the other person. It’s also the ability to understand what it’s like to walk in the other person’s shoes without actually joining them in those shoes or trying to fix the shoes for them.
If you’re interested in the different types of compassion, psychologist Paul Ekman has created a fascinating and helpful Taxonomy of Compassion.
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