The Art And Science Of Empathy--Healing The Nation And Our Relationships

This election cycle has hit a chord in a way that many of us have never before experienced.  We seem to be more divided than we have ever been.  This week, clients have reported having full-blown panic attacks.  They have come in crying—saying they have been unable to stop crying.  On social media, people are talking to each other with such intense anger and blame that its destroying friendships and family relationships.  We are insulting each other in ways that are completely unfair.  We’ve seen violence and desperate attempts to escape to another country. 

As a therapist, this isn’t a surprise to me.  I understand the science of fear.  I understand how fear gets in the way of true empathy and I understand that empathy is one of the best ways to create enough interpersonal safety to get our rational brains involved in the conversation.  But as I tackle each conversation I have with an eye for empathy building, I realize that many people don’t truly understand how to manage fear while at the same time holding space for empathy.  But indeed, this is exactly what we need in order to heal any relationship.  It is certainly what we need to heal our country.


Without empathy there is no safety and without safety there is fear and with fear comes anger and with anger comes hate and with hate comes violence and the deep divide grows. 


I hope you will stick with me as I wander down the lane of fear and empathy for a bit.  While advocacy has helped us achieve so many important things in the last generation, I am worried that advocacy without empathy has deepened our divide.  I believe advocacy (on both sides of the isle) without empathy is the reason this election was what it was.  I believe that the best way to take action is to build our empathy muscles.  To do that we must first understand the basics of how we operate. 


The Brain And Fear:

We often forget that, as humans, we are also animals.  A large part of our brain is not so dissimilar to the brain of a deer being hunted by a lion—or a lion hunting a deer.  This part of our brain is responsible for making quick decisions about our safety and survival.  This part of our brain is so essential to our existence that without its quick and powerful reactions to threat we would never survive.  It is this part of our brain that sees a snake and startles immediately even if it is a harmless snake.  It is the part of our brain that reaches out to grab our child before we even have time to think about the fact that they are running in front of a car. 

But here’s the thing—it’s also the part of our brain that learns over time (through images, stories and experiences) to fear all black people.  It’s the part that sees videos of brown people in hijabs threatening to kill all Americans and provides a fear reaction for every brown person in a hijab.  Without other experiences to show us that not every snake is poisonous and not every Muslim is a potential threat, our brain does the automatic work for us even if we don't believe we are "racist".  This very important part of our brain doesn’t give us time to assess the real threat of danger—it only has time to respond.  How does it respond?  It responds by fighting, flying, freezing or camouflaging.  It overrides the rational frontal lobe of our brain and focuses on saving the self. 

When we begin to imagine our brains in a desperate attempt to protect us we begin to understand many of the responses we see from others.  If you are truly terrified that one candidate will open the borders and allow rapists and drug dealers into our country with no expectation that they follow our laws or pay our taxes you will likely do anything—fight, fly, freeze—to avoid that reality.  It is unthinkable to imagine our loved ones in danger.  If you are truly terrified that the other candidate will incite and approve of violence against those you love, you will likely do anything—fight, fly, freeze—to avoid that reality. 

This also occurs in our interpersonal relationships.  If your brain is wired to believe that your husband coming home late from work means he is cheating (due to past experiences—possibly in other relationships), you are likely to respond in a way that appears highly out of proportion to the evidence you have about your husband’s very likely fidelity.  If your brain is wired to believe that a person setting boundaries with you is equivalent to you being unlovable you will respond in ways that look “crazy” to others.  The interpersonal threat of abandonment and rejection triggers the same threat response that physical threats do.


The Art And Science Of Empathy

With this very abbreviated base of knowledge we can begin to consider empathy.  We are all born with the neurological material for empathy.  Some people appear to have a great deal more empathy than others.  There are lots of theories on why some of us seem to experience empathy more easily (or intensely) than others.  Theories range from the actual neurological differences that we are born with to the attachment relationship with primary caregivers to more spiritual beliefs on empathy and intuition.  Regardless of the cause, it is important to understand that we all have Mirror Neurons.  Mirror Neurons are the things that cause us to yawn when someone else yawns or gag when someone else vomits.  They are also responsible for crying during movies or laughing when someone else is laughing even if you don’t know what they are laughing about.  They are our empathy neurons.  As with most of our brain development, they start out doing pretty simple things when we’re little like yawning and gagging.  As we get older, we either use them for more complex things or we don’t.  If we don’t use them, we loose access to their amazing abilities.

So, if we’ve come to adulthood without giving these neurons much use, we are likely to not have ANY access to them when we are afraid.  Combine an already heightened state of fear with a lack of practice with empathy neurons and you get a zero percent chance of getting there.  What this means is that we are likely to stay in the emotion of a thing without moving into a place of rational thought or empathy for the person or people who we now see as a threat.  And this, ladies, gentleman and gender neutral lovelies, is where we find ourselves today.  So stuck in the emotion that we don’t see or hear each other’s greatest hopes and fears—moving further towards meeting only our own needs.


So What Do We Do?

We know that our brains are plastic—meaning we can begin to use these mirror neurons to build our empathy muscles if we are willing to try.  We also know that we can get the frontal lobe of our brain involved in the conversation much sooner than we often do—with practice.  But, as with the learning of any new thing, we must start trying when we are in a calm space.  Below are some ideas on how to better assess your true levels of threat and increase your empathy. Try them out when you are challenged with a small fear or disagreement and then you can build from there.


Assessing Your Threat and Responding:

1.     Start noticing how your body feels when it is having a fight, flight, freeze, camouflage response. Most people report tightness in the chest, an increase in heart rate and a burning sensation in the heart area.  Other signs can be sweaty palms, narrowing of vision, shaking, heat in the face etc. 

2.     Name the fear.  When your body starts to feel these things, name it as fear.  We will often say we are angry and that’s true.  Anger is a really important emotion, but it’s not a primary emotion.  Anger is the emotion that allows for an increase of adrenaline to attack the cause of the fear.  The fear is the emotion that typically triggers anger. 

3.     Check the evidence.  If you got to step two, you’re probably not in immediate danger.  So it’s time to get the frontal lobe of your brain in the game.  Did that candidate actually say that they were going to let all immigrants into the country without any process to ensure safety?  Did that candidate actually say that they want to deport your family?  Is this candidate actually capable of what he/she says they want to do?  Has my husband given me any reason to believe that he may be unfaithful?  Is this person really setting a boundary because I am unlovable?  Sometimes the evidence supports your fear, but sometimes it doesn’t.

4.     Decide how to protect.  Sometimes we do need to protect ourselves because we are truly at risk, but most of the time we have time to decide how to with the use of our whole brain.  Possibly your first response was to fight with your uncle on social media, but after engaging your whole brain you decide it may be better to meet him with empathy and ask further questions to uncover his greatest fears and hopes.  Possibly your first response to your husband coming home late was to pack up the kids and run to your mom’s house—threatening a divorce, but after engaging your whole brain you decide it’s better to calmly discuss your fears with your husband and engage a therapist to explore this with you both.  You’re still working to protect, but in a more effective way.


Building Empathy:

1.     When You Disagree—Pause and Reflect.  Typically we get the same physical response to disagreeing with someone as we do to feeling we are under threat.  So, when you notice that, pause.  Instead of responding with your point of view, tell the person what you heard them saying.  In this, you will include what you think they said, but also what you think they may be feeling.  “You’re terrified that your family isn’t going to be safe!”

2.     Think of a Time You’ve Felt That Feeling or Imagine What It Would Feel Like If You Did.  When your child is upset that he can’t wear his underwear on the outside of his outfit and you imagine that he is being incredibly unreasonable, think of the last time you wanted to do something a certain way and someone else told you to do it differently.  Call to mind and heart what that emotion felt like.  Just because you don’t have the same response as they do to the exact same scenario doesn’t mean you can’t imagine what it feels like to be deeply disappointed. 

3.     Validate The Feeling. 

“I can only imagine how terrified you must be that you’ll have to live on public assistance forever because you can’t get a job.”

“Feeling like your family and friends are in danger is the most overwhelming feeling a person can have.”

“You love me and you’re scared that I’m going to stop loving you.  I can’t imagine how terrifying that is for you.”

“It’s so hard to not get what you want when you really really want it and you really really want to wear your underwear over your clothes today.”

Validating the emotion is not the same as validating that you believe the fear is real or that you agree with the other person.   It is just saying that you can imagine the intensity of the emotion and you hate that the other person is experiencing that. 

4.    Brainstorm When Possible.  Once we get in touch with the root emotion that is feeding the “irrational” behavior we can begin to brainstorm together on ways to get everyone’s needs met.  When we can’t brainstorm, we can at least acknowledge that there is room to figure this out together. 


Yeah, but...

Some of you will read this and say “Lara, that’s really awkward”.  Yes, at first it will be, so try it out on people who can be patient with you.  But I promise you that it can become so second nature that it no longer feels awkward and instead feels incredibly supportive.  Just keep practicing.  Other people will say, “Well I don’t need to be coddled like that, people who need that are weak”.  Nope, you’re wrong.  The toughest of the tough respond better to empathy and validation than an immediate push back.  Look through your social media disagreements if you want proof.  Which ones went well and which didn’t?  I bet the ones that went well included many, if not all, of these steps.  And others will say “If someone is threatening me, I have a right to fight back”.  Yes.  That’s why our brain acts the way it does.  But wouldn’t you rather fight smart than fight hard?  Where has all this fighting loud and without rational thought gotten you in your partnership, in your parental relationships, with your children, in our country?

So if you truly want to make change-- you truly want to heal these wounds, try spending more time in a space of empathy and less time screaming at the top of your lungs.  You may be surprised at how far it gets us.