Irony Of Empathy


Michael Allison

The more we care about someone, the more difficult it is to help them. Despite our intentions of relieving their pain, our suffering alongside them interferes with our capacity to be helpful. As we observe someone we care deeply about amid their struggles, we hear the hurt in their voice, see the strain in their face, and feel the fear and frustration in their body. Whether we recognise it or not, their tone of voice, facial expressions, and body language trigger reflexive physiological shifts beneath our conscious control.

Functionally, we may experience changes in heart rate, breathing, muscle tension, metabolic output, and body temperature as our autonomic nervous system reflexively diverts resources from supporting homeostasis and toward attacking, defending, or protecting. This rapid disruption to our internal sense of safety provides the neural platform for empathy, an essential ingredient within our shared human experience. The deeper our connection to someone, the more intimately attuned we are to their pain and suffering, the more intense the physiological disruptions to our sense of safety, and the more empathy we experience and express.

The consequences of these internal shifts (i.e., heart rate, breathing, metabolic output, muscle tension) help us better understand and appreciate what they are going through. Simultaneously, we tell them that we genuinely know what they are experiencing, not through our words but through our facial expressions, tone of voice, and body language. This rapid, reflexive, and subconscious exchange helps them feel seen, heard, and understood, cultivating trust.

However, the more we love and care for someone, the more intertwined we are with their bodily feelings, the more extreme our reflexive physiological reactions, and the more challenging it becomes to recover our sense of safety. Despite our intentions, values, and goals, we simply can’t help someone feel better if we continue to suffer alongside them because we inadvertently tell them we are hurting because of them.

As coaches, leaders, friends, teammates, parents, helping professionals, and life partners, we are responsible for recovering from empathic physiological states to provide compassionate support aligned with our heartfelt intentions. Whether watching our seven-year-old freeze on stage during her school’s choral performance, our junior tennis player smash his racquet and put his head down, or our colleague struggle to articulate their thoughts in a business meeting, we must recognise and respect how our physiological shifts to their discomfort add to or help mitigate their pain and suffering.

“The voice is the broadcaster of our physiological state,” says the founder of the polyvagal theory, Stephen W. Porges, Ph.D. Our facial expressions, body language, vocal rhythms, pitch, pace, and tone are more impactful and essential to our bodily reactions than the words we use. We may tell those we wholeheartedly intend to support to “relax, no pressure here, you’ve got this,” while the tone of our voice, tension around our eyes, and our stiff, rigid posture send a contradictory message of angst, worry, and doubt.

What happens or doesn’t happen after our initial empathic response doesn’t necessarily reflect our intentions, character, values, and motivation to help. It might more accurately reflect our autonomic resilience and our ability or inability to recover into a physiological state of safety. We might have every intention and desire to express our compassion for someone we deeply care about. However, their pain may disrupt our physiology so that we lose control and erupt, spin out, run away, or implode. The more we care about and are connected with someone (i.e., kids, partners, loved ones), the more massive our reflexive bodily responses and the more challenging it is to maintain and regain the calming control of our physiology.

The solution isn’t to stop, repress, or ignore our initial empathic response. The bodily feelings beneath our internal experience of empathy aren’t deliberate decisions but natural reactions that hold vital information. The necessary first step in the trust-building process is to feel another’s pain and let them know we feel it, not through our verbal language, but through our body language, tone of voice and facial expressions. Yet, as we become keenly aware of these empathic physiological shifts, we may regroup and align with our body in skillful ways that help us signal our support of them versus our suffering because of them.

We never really know the stories people tell themselves to make sense of what’s happening to them. We never really know what’s triggering the underlying shifts in our physiology. We can’t predict precisely how our body will respond to the pressure of performing. We can’t control our reflexive physiological responses to the pain and suffering of someone we care for, love, and are committed to helping. Our physiological shifts and dynamically changing internal environment are part of the human experience.

However, when we recognise how our bodily reactions interfere with our capacity to be helpful and might add to their pain, suffering, and discomfort, we can "meet our body where it is," first. Through awareness, self-care, and compassion, we can relate to what’s happening within our internal environment and begin to soften the edges around our bodily reactions so that we can align with our heartfelt intentions of wanting to help those we care most about.–Psychology Today

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