Relationship Advice Tips By Dr. Jeanette Raymond, Ph.D.
Does being empathic make you feel like you are getting sucked into a black hole?
Are you scared of getting sucked down into a black hole if you empathize with the bad feelings of your loved one? Does your fear make you want to just fix the problem and stop the bad feelings? Or do you step back and become aloof making your loved one feel abandoned? Either way you may have difficulty empathizing in a safe way.
There are three components of empathy that have to work together in order for you to feel safe and for your relationship to benefit. The story of Regina and Conrad’s difficulties tells how they navigated the first of the steps of empathy and felt better connected.
Empathy misconception – feeling for your loved one sucks you into their black hole
Every time Regina vented her bad feelings out loud, Conrad’s heart sank. This time was no exception.
“I know your mother won’t like my roast chicken. It isn’t the same as hers. She is going to think I can’t feed you properly and that I am not a good wife for you!” insisted Regina in her state of doom and panic.
Conrad didn’t want to indulge her bad feelings. He thought they were over the top and not to be taken seriously. Nor did he want to seem uncaring. He wanted Regina to feel good so he didn’t have to worry about her sensitivities nor that of his mother. It was too much like hard work and totally unnecessary.
Using logic and rationality made things worse
When Regina got carried away by her doom and panic Conrad felt she was slipping away into a dark place and wouldn’t be able to get out on her own. He would feel obliged to go in there after her and make sure she didn’t sink too low. The trouble was, he was terrified of the black hole sucking him in like a hungry vortex. So he used the only tool he felt safe with – his intellect – in the shape of logic and reason. But that made things worse. Regina felt like he didn’t get her at all and that made her panic grow more intense. Regina’s deepening panic made Conrad’s fear of being consumed by it grow stronger. The only exit strategy left was to dismiss her as being ‘crazy’ and leave her alone. Not a healthy interaction for the couple.
Empathy is the key to successful relationship
An empathic partner is a partner who tunes into their own feelings and those of their loved one. Each person can feel for and with their loved one. It is the foundation on which we share our experiences and feel understood. Empathy helps us read our loved ones and allows them to read us accurately so that we connect in a meaningful way. Without empathy there is no common ground on which we can build a solid foundation for a healthy mutually supportive relationship.
First Component of Empathy
An article in the Journal of Behavioral and Cognitive Neuroscience Reviews, 2004, lists three essential components of empathy.
The first component in the ability to share in the feelings of another person.
What does sharing mean?
- finding a place inside you where you may have felt in a similar way.
Conrad could have remembered the time when he was convinced that his father wouldn’t approve of his grades and the terror it induced in him.
- using that visceral memory to get a sense of what your loved one might be experiencing.
Conrad could have felt that fear in his stomach, chest and throat for long enough to imagine how scared Regina must be when thinking about his mother’s response to her cooking.
- putting into words what those feelings might be
Conrad could have told himself how he tried so hard to please his father, to be approved of and accepted, and then used those same words to show that he understood Regina’s fears.
- exchange feelings using the words that helped you to make sense of your experience when you felt something similar to your loved one.
Conrad could have shared his feelings of desperation to get his father’s approval and love and reassured Regina that her anxiety was normal, and that he stood by her, no matter what.
How can Conrad’s empathy help his relationship with Regina?
Conrad’s empathy gives him information that he can use to understand his partner and make her feel understood. When Regina feels understood she will feel accepted and calm down. She will be more open to letting the good stuff in and neutralize the bad stuff.
Conrad then gets his wish. His partner is back to her normal state and they can feel connected from sharing their experiences via the magic of empathy.
Look out for the next article which outlines the second component of empathy with safety.
Copyright, Jeanette Raymond, Ph.D.
Disclaimer: this article is for informational and educational purposes only. There is no liability on the part of Dr. Jeanette Raymond for any emotional reaction you may have when interacting with or using the suggestions offered in this material. Reading this article does not constitute a therapeutic relationship with Dr. Raymond.