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 unhealthy 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.
Because that’s not empathy!
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 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.
And in cases of enmeshment, you’ll often see the uncontrolled helping behaviors that I call runaway healing. Imagine a truck barreling downhill with no brakes, 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:
- Emotion Contagion
- Empathic Accuracy
- Emotion Regulation
- Perspective Taking
- Concern for Others
- 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.
For 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, and took perceptive actions. Now, 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 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 you’d like to be more comfortable, the next steps are to develop your Empathic Accuracy, to understand emotions, 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.