What People Mean When They Talk About Empathy — And Why It's So Important

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woman wondering what is empathy

What is empathy and why is it so important, especially in recent times?

Before the term "empath" became fashionable and dozens of articles and books were written about it, the only example we had was the character Deanna Troi on the old Star Trek: The Next Generation TV show.

She would get this distressed look on her face and say something like, "I sense loneliness. Pain."

Of course, we can’t really mind-meld and we don’t have ESP, but that sort of process is close to what empathy means.

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What is empathy?

To empathize with someone is to feel inside yourself, for a moment, what feelings they feel as they talk about a situation with you.

If it’s a big promotion at work, you feel as elated as they do. If you’re a mom whose child comes home crying about a school bully, it’s important that you feel how hurt and humiliated they are as you take them in your arms.

There’s such a thing as too much empathy, but not enough is a relationship-ruiner.

The best way to describe how important empathy is in relationships is to look at what happens when it’s inconsistent. What kind of relationship does that happen in?

People who are narcissistic or have borderline personality disorders and people with addictions are infamous for being self-centered. It's always about their feelings and never yours.

Clearly, that’s obnoxious. But they aren’t always that way, or they’d never have relationships with anyone!

Life with someone whose quality of empathy in the relationship is on again, off again is a miserable roller-coaster ride.

To see why consistent empathy in any relationship is important, here are some examples of this kind of relationship.

1. Mom with borderline personality disorder and her 10-year-old girl.

Mom has had a pretty even day. She had something good happen. Interactions with friends, her husband, or perhaps her parents have gone well.

She’s happy, or at least on an even keel emotionally.

Her 10-year-old daughter comes home crying from school, reporting that the popular girls in her class all pointed at her and laughed — and she didn’t even know why.

She was the last person chosen for basketball in gym class and has been all year.

To top it all off, girls she doesn’t even know are pointing at her and whispering in the hall at school, and someone she’s never met sent her an ugly message on Facebook.

Today, Mom’s having a pretty good day, so she pulls her daughter into her arms, kisses her, and reassures her that there’s nothing wrong with her. She tells her that she’s a perfectly good person, and tomorrow she will call the teacher and discuss these problems.

She makes her daughter a cup of hot chocolate before she sits down to her homework, and says something supportive, like, "I know you’re a great kid and you always will be to me. It hurts when other people treat you that way for no reason, and you don’t deserve it."

But, then Mom has a bad day. Perhaps traffic was bad, or perhaps she asked her husband to take the family somewhere special for the weekend and he opted to catch up on work, instead.

The daughter comes home with another tale like yesterday’s. But today, Mom is upset and her empathy has gone blam! right down the tubes.

Today, the daughter cries and Mom says something like, "I told Grandma about this and she wanted to know what’s the matter with you that you don’t have any friends!"

Or, she peers at her daughter’s tear-streaked face and says, "You don’t look like the other girls," in a sneering tone.

This is an abrupt failure of empathy. (And it actually happened to me, so it's not a far-fetched story.)

2. A new romantic relationship.

Day one: Guy meets girl, flirts, asks for her phone number, sends clever texts, and invites the girl out for dinner and a movie.

During dinner a few nights later, it emerges in the conversation that the girl is having problems at work. Guy listens and lets her know he understands how upsetting the situation is. 

She feels understood and cared for. Maybe she’s met a true friend instead of just "benefits!"

Day 120: Girl texts, "Had a rough day at work. Can U come over, watch a movie, talk?" No answer.

In fact, after a wonderful three months full of fun times and great sex, she’s started to believe they are a couple and wants to introduce him to her friends and family.

In response, he takes forever to respond to texts and is starting to pick on her about her appearance. He acts distracted whenever she wants to talk about anything.

Next week, she finds old texts on his phone that suggest he’s been in touch with the girl who dumped him last year the whole time. And they’re full of X-rated talk. This guy may be a narcissist.

When empathy is inconsistent in a relationship, it can really torpedo your self-esteem.

When a person with inconsistent empathy is complimenting you, understanding you, and paying attention to you, they’re telling you it’s because of you — you're wonderful!

When they turn all that off and attack or dismiss you, they’re also implying that you’re the reason.

And it’s easy to believe that is the truth. You don’t know all the factors involved. There might even be other factors explaining this person’s behavior that have nothing to do with you.

All you know is what you can see, and what you can see is: Once this person cared about your feelings, and now they don’t.

Consider the daughter in the first example. After that last exchange, she’s going to go away thinking, "I guess something really is wrong with me if even my own mother would say something like that."

And we’ve all been treated like the second example by a boyfriend. What’s the first thing we think? "But he thought I was the best thing that ever happened to him three months ago! What did I do wrong?"

The key is to notice whether this is a pervasive pattern in this person’s behavior or if it’s situational.

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Here are 2 indicators of whether a person's lack of empathy is situational or based in toxic patterns.

1. A person with true empathy realizes they did or said something hurtful.

They come back on their own, apologize, and make a sincere effort to do better in the future.

If you speak up — which you always should! — and say something like, "Hey, that felt awful. That really hurt!", they show some empathy for your feelings, even if they’re in the middle of some emergency.

If the quality of empathy a person is showing you has gone completely down the toilet and shows no sign of ever resurfacing — and you haven’t done anything that might reasonably deserve it — then this is who the person really is.

If you're dating someone with narcissistic or borderline tendencies, this is very common.

2. When you picture the person and the relationship, how do you feel?

Do you feel overall happiness, a strong sense that even if things get a little bumpy once in a while, that this person is someone you can trust and the relationship is fundamentally good?

Or do you just get a sinking feeling?

Many times, your gut knows when you've entered a relationship that’s suffering from a basic failure of empathy.

People with addictions, people on the NPD or BPD spectrum, and other people with emotional problems are often able to do a good job with empathy at the beginning of a relationship.

But they don’t have the emotional health to sustain your connection over a long period of time.

Sometimes, counseling can help you determine which situation you’re actually in. If you find yourself in this kind of situation a lot, therapy and reading can help you figure out why.

If this kind of pattern keeps repeating in your life, it’s important to get some help with it, especially if you notice it in a child-parent relationship.

Being around those without consistent or enough empathy can do long-term damage to your sense of yourself as a good and worthy human being and that sets you up for worse in the future.

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P.D. Reader is a student astrologer who blogs about relationships, affairs, astrology, and personality disorders. Her murder mystery/borderline personality disorder novel, Split Black, is available as a free read.