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The difference between empathy and enmeshment

January 23, 2014

Hello fellow empathic people!

Did you know that there’s a distinct difference between healthy empathy and enmeshment?

I’ve spent a lifetime exploring how empathy works, how it goes awry, how we can understand it more clearly, and how we can create a ground for self-care and self-empathy within our everyday lives.

I’ve also been looking at an idea about empathy that goes something like this:

Empathy means that you agree with me, that you support me, that you feel my emotions alongside me, and that you meet my needs, even if I don’t articulate them. When you do that, we’re empathizing and you’re empathic.

Really?

Because that’s not empathy; that’s enmeshment!

When people agree completely and when everyone is on the same page, that’s not empathy as much as it is similarity. There’s not really a great need for empathy if everyone is similar. There’s no work to be done, nothing to understand, and nothing much to do.

But when people are feeling the emotions of others inside their own bodies, to the extent that they don’t actually know whose emotion it is or what they themselves are feeling, that’s not empathy either. That’s enmeshment.

And in cases of enmeshment, you’ll often see the reflexive helping behaviors that I call Runaway Healing. Imagine if you will a truck barreling downhill with no brakes, plaintively pleading “Let me heal you, let me heeeaaaallll you,” and you’ll get the picture.

When we’re enmeshed with other people’s emotions and we can’t differentiate between their feelings and our own, we’ll often drop into runaway healing — not merely to support the other person, but also to alleviate the emotional hyperactivation we feel in response to their emotions.

Let’s look at my Six Essential Aspects of Empathy model to see what’s going on in enmeshment:

  1. Emotion Contagion
  2. Empathic Accuracy
  3. Emotion Regulation
  4. Perspective Taking
  5. Concern for Others
  6. Perceptive Engagement

In healthy and intentional empathy, these six aspects work together to help us understand others and make perceptive responses to their stated and unstated emotions, needs, and circumstances. This doesn’t have to be complex; it often happens in a split second, easily and naturally.

Man walking in crosswalk with bulky bag on his shoulderFor instance, imagine that you’re walking on the sidewalk and another pedestrian approaches you carrying a very bulky bag, meets your eyes momentarily, and smiles as he walks toward you. You instinctively smile back and gracefully change your trajectory to make room for him and his bag.

In less than 2 seconds, you’ve run through all of the Six Essential Aspects of Empathy and perceptively engaged with a complete stranger. You read the situation, managed your own body and your emotional state, took proper perspective, cared enough to meet the needs for both of you, took perceptive actions, and you’re both on your way.

In enmeshment, however, this kind of easy progression through the six aspects of empathy doesn’t happen. Instead, the process seems to stop at the first aspect, Emotion Contagion. When we’re overwhelmed by the emotions of others, to the extent that we lose our sense of self, that’s a sign of a very advanced capacity for Emotion Contagion that hasn’t yet been tempered by strong abilities in the other five aspects.

Welcome to my childhood! Powerful enmeshment was my early experience of empathy, and it’s the reason I’ve studied emotions and empathy for my entire life.

Creating a ground for healthy, intentional, and self-respecting empathy

In The Art of Empathy, I focus on helping people develop an empathic awareness of Emotion Contagion so that they can learn how to empathize more intentionally and more comfortably.

If your experience of empathy has primarily involved intense Emotion Contagion and enmeshment, then congratulations. You’re a hyper-empath, welcome!

If you’d like to be more comfortable, the next steps are to develop your Empathic Accuracy, to understand emotions empathically, and to gather skills in Emotion Regulation, self-awareness, and self-soothing.

When you know who you are, when you know how to regulate your own emotions, and when you know how to soothe yourself in the presence of the emotions of others (this will help you feel healthy Concern for Others instead of enmeshing with them), it will be much easier to maintain your sense of self and perform effective Perspective Taking.

When you have skills, your empathy won’t be an enmeshed, self-abandoning act; it will be an intentional interaction where you and the other person (or people, or animals, of course!) will be able to perform Perceptive Engagement without losing yourselves in the process.

Healthy empathy is not enmeshment; it’s a dance between equals; it’s a song sung in harmony; it’s a relationship; and it’s a natural, easy thing when you’ve got all Six Essential Aspects of Empathy working together.

That’s the art of empathy.

18 Comments

Jean-Charles Massé January 25, 2014 at 7:26 pm

I appreciate your explanations, precisions, distinctions in the meaning of the
words you use because I am a French speaking man…but I know enough of
the English language to read you. Thank you.
Jean-Charles.

Karla January 25, 2014 at 7:56 pm

Thank you Jean-Charles, merci!

Susan G January 26, 2014 at 9:48 am

Very helpful insight. As a parent of young children I find myself and so many other parents with this problem– it seems loving and caring, so how can enmeshment be a problem, right? But the distinction between healthy empathy and enmeshment is a very important concept. So many of us are not accurate in assessing the “hurt” felt by our child, we can be hyper-hurt and provide a hyper-“solution” to the offense that escalates basic child growth, learning and development. Love your book and your insight.

Karla January 26, 2014 at 8:35 pm

Hello Susan, yes, it’s a hard distinction to make, because at certain ages, children really do need us to do a great deal for them physically and emotionally. Knowing when to step back and let our kids make mistakes and learn how to figure things out on their own — it’s a big learning curve! However, at the age of two or three, some children become very vocal about “Let ME do it!”

I’m also thinking about how often we go to solution for other people when they don’t actually ask, but are maybe just wanting to be able to to complain to someone. My husband and I have learned to say, “I don’t want you to go to solution; I just need to talk this out.” With children, it can be very empowering and non-enmeshing to ask: “Do you want me to help you think of a solution, or do you want to figure it out on your own?”

Rachel January 26, 2014 at 12:09 pm

This is really helpful, thanks!!! I, too, appreciate the distinctions you’re making, in my own language, maybe because in our situation, it’s the distinctions that are the hard things to make! Things kind of run in together and you try and sort things out… for me, it’s also mixed up with trying to make sure people don’t get too upset, and trying to sense what will go over well and what won’t, before I act or speak. I AM working on changing that, so not to worry 🙂 I will have to read more of what you’ve written. Thank you again. (Also, I speak French also so if you need a bit of translation, or clarification, let me know.)

Karla January 26, 2014 at 10:40 pm

Thanks Rachel! Welcome!

Amy February 20, 2014 at 6:34 pm

I really resonate with this post. Thank you so much for sharing! I seem to be a hyper-empath who easily enmeshes and have struggled emotionally from a young age. This gives me hope that it is possible for me to learn new skills and a healthier way of relating to people.

Karla February 20, 2014 at 8:19 pm

Welcome Amy, and yes, it is very possible to become more comfortable and intentional with your empathy and your ways of relating. Welcome to the clan!

Patricia Stevenson March 6, 2014 at 3:03 pm

Karla, I have read both of your latest books, and my amazement continues.Your approach is like no other I have ever seen; remarkable, useful, usable. In your most recent book there was a brief comment on those who may have” too much self awareness”It seemed that you said that having too much would be as unbalanced as having too little.Can you explain what too much self awareness may feel or look like? I feel plagued at times, as if I can not make a move, (or validate an emotion) without feeling like I am a prisoner of a 24/7 inner judge and jury.”Being wrong” can be the worst task master. Is this what you mean by” too much self awareness”? If one is too self aware, what can be done to balance? I have adapted throughout my life in a variety of ways, frequently using avoidance. Then, very often depression seems to zooms in , maybe to save me from the overwhelm. Thank you kindly, for your great work. Tricia

Karla March 7, 2014 at 1:08 pm

Hello Patricia, and welcome! The self-awareness piece comes from the work of Richard Davidson, who looks at his six dimensions of emotional style as existing on a continuum. In the self-awareness dimension, in the “too much” direction, people can be so aware of their bodies — pains, emotional shifts, sounds, smells, their digestion, and so forth that they are subsumed in their interior environment and can’t be very present for or with others. His suggestion is to use mindfulness meditation if this is the case, so that people can become less reactive to their internal state.

This is different than what you’re talking about, I think. The inner judge you speak of sounds to me like shame that is on a kind of a bender. I call this inauthentic, inappropriate, or foreign shame, and yes, it’s a complete drag. If this is shame we’re talking about, you may want to look at this post on shame, and this post on working with shame that is out of kilter. Shame is a crucial emotion, but when it’s out of kilter, oy, it can be a monster.

If it’s not shame you’re talking about, let me know!

Christina November 13, 2015 at 1:02 pm

Hello Karla,

So I am doing a research paper on Genetic Markers of Empathy for my Biological Anthropology class. For the reason that a research study titled “Empathy Moderated by genetic Background in Mice makes reference to a couple topic’s that you cover I am going to utilize information I have gathered from you for my definition of Empathy too. One area that I am pulling from is your writing from your blog on Emotion Contagion, which sounds to me similar to the state of enmeshment. Thus I am leaving a comment here in this area, and would appreciate to hear your thoughts.

Karla November 16, 2015 at 12:31 pm

Hello and good luck on your paper! The term “emotion contagion” comes from research in psychology and neurology, and you should be able to find some good studies if you query on that term. I don’t have much to say about genetic markers for empathy, however. Cheers!

Pamela Lauren December 3, 2015 at 4:19 pm

Someone on Facebook turned me on to your website. I am so glad I found you. I have been struggling with this my entire life. It has caused me to put up walls and appear unfeeling because I can’t control or separate myself from people’s intense emotions. If I am open, I can even sense emotions from strangers who are in a room with me; even if they a re completely silent. I am going to have to get your book. My mom used to tell me it was a gift, but it has felt more like a curse.

Karla December 3, 2015 at 5:04 pm

Hello Pamela, and welcome!

Yes, many hyper-empathic people shut down and can appear uncaring. Whenever someone tells me that so-and-so is not empathic, I look very closely at the person. Often, they’re burnt out hyper-empaths. Knowing this is what helped me understand that autistic people are usually hyper-empaths (Autism and Empathy), and knowing that people see them as unempathic made me realize that people don’t know nothin’ about empathy! It’s why I wrote the book!

The Empathic Mindfulness practices were created to help hyper-empathic people feel more comfortable in the world, so they don’t burn out or isolate themselves. I think you’ll like them.

This quiz might interest you: Are You an Empath? Welcome to the empath clan!

Amy Nichols March 2, 2016 at 1:56 pm

I need to learn more about enmeshment as it looks like that’s been a major part of the problem in my problematic 20+ year marriage. It’s exhausting and my response has been to disengage. Can you please point me toward some resources? Thank you!

Karla March 2, 2016 at 6:57 pm

Hi Amy, and welcome.

Certainly, basic counseling is invaluable, and The Art of Empathy may be as well. However, it sounds like counseling would be a better first step so that you can get some in-person support!

Take care, and know that no matter where you start, you can become more comfortable with your empathy.

Amy Nichols March 3, 2016 at 3:24 pm

I/we’ve had quite a bit of counseling. Just finding that lifelong habits are very very hard to break (enmeshment was part of my childhood as well. His too, come to think of it). Learning to care in a healthy way is just so difficult when it goes against what feels normal and right. Really, I’d rather eat. 🙂 I will add your book to my list. Thank you!

Karla March 3, 2016 at 5:23 pm

Eating can be an excellent way to set boundaries! I think you’ll like the work on boundaries and thresholds in The Art of Empathy. Enmeshment is very easy for empathic people — it’s like their default. Learning to set calm and empathic boundaries intentionally can be a real game changer, and it’s something that many of us have to work at regularly. It’s good work, however!

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