Emotions and Empathy

Emotions and Empathy. Psychology Fanatic article header image

Being in touch with budding feelings of personal experience is essential before we can empathically relate to feelings of someone else. If our own feelings are unacceptable, shunned and buried, we will also recoil at other people’s feeling experience. Emotion frightens those unaccustomed to feeling. Emotions and empathy work together. With empathy, we notice emotional experiences in others, feeling some of their experience.

Intimacy, closeness and security arise from welcomed vulnerability to emotion. We connect through shared experience with empathy, attuning to each others felt experience. The thick walls of indifference tumble. Suddenly, the selfish and cold experience of logic loses supremacy for the warmth of aliveness. We must be capable of feeling before we can feel empathize and connect.

Fear of Emotion; Fear of Empathy

If you suffer from the malady of fright (afraid to feel), adaptive practices can introduce you to the rich world of feeling.  Emotions don’t have to remain hidden in the dull greys of a protected world. We can change, open our hearts, and see the colors we have missed.

Our fears of emotion may initially prevent full exploration of the unknown world of others through empathy. However, as we begin this wondrous journey into emotions and empathy with gentle exposures, mindfully dipping in one foot at a time, remembering forgotten pains, and basking in present joys, we can discover the fullness of emotional experience. As we allow quietness to weave its way through our psyche, gently exploring our feelings, without word or commentary, we open to this magical world of emotion.

Through emotion and empathy, we slowly re-discover new aliveness. We first discover emotion in ourselves and then, when ready, through empathy discover the vibrant inner world of others.

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Intimacy and Empathy

Intimacy is built upon the feeling of emotion. Muriel James and Dorothy Jongeward wrote in their intriguing book Born to Win that intimacy “occurs in those rare moments of human contact that arouse feelings of tenderness, empathy, and affection.” They continue,  “intimacy is often frightening because it involves risk. In an intimate relationship people are vulnerable, and many times it seems easier to pass time or to play games than to risk feelings either of affection or of rejection” (1996, location 690-704).

Perhaps, we fear connection because it exposes our vulnerability. We don’t want to feel emotions because sometimes emotions hurts. So, we stuff all that pain down, away from consciousness, and, of course, still suffer.

The Cost of Empathy

Science strongly supports the benefits of empathy, both for the development of relationships and personal wellness (Greenfield and Marks, 2004Lum and Lightfoot, 2005Weinstein and Ryan, 2010); but does it have a cost?

​Anytime we see defensive avoidance of a behavioral our feeling state, we can deductively assume there is some cost.

​An interesting study found that parents rating high in empathy with their children also showed associations with indicators of chronic, low-grade, inflammation, suggesting that giving empathetic care might also come at a physiological cost (Manczak, DeLongis, & Chen, 2016).

We must keep in mind with these studies that we never live in an isolated vacuum, meaning life is complex full of moving parts. Empathy’s benefits extend beyond raising a child. When skilled at empathy, we typically have wider availability of social support, more intimate connections, and greater regulatory skills. These benefits outweigh the costs when viewed from a deeper perspective. Empathy opens the door to dyadic regulation and validation of a partner’s emotional experience. Both these practices are necessary for intimacy and closeness.

A Few Words From Psychology Fanatic

Awareness of the presence of emotions in ourselves and others powerfully molds our lives. We escape pettiness through empathetic understanding. Kindness begins with emotional awareness.

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Greenfield. E. A. , Marks N. F. (2004) Formal volunteering as a protective factor for older adults’ psychological well-being. The Journal of Gerontology: Series B. Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences. 

Lum, T. Y., Lightfoot, E. (2005).  The effects of volunteering on the physical and mental health of older people. Research on Aging.

​Manczak, E., DeLongis, A., & Chen, E. (2016). Does Empathy Have a Cost? Diverging Psychological and Physiological Effects Within Families. Health Psychology, 35(3), 211-218.

Muriel James; Dorothy Jongeward (1996).  Born To Win: Transactional Analysis With Gestalt Experiments. Da Capo Lifelong Books; 25th Anniversary ed. edition.

​Weinstein, N., Ryan, R. M. (2010) When helping helps: Autonomous motivation for prosocial behavior and its influence on well-being for the helper and recipient. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

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