You tear up when you see commercials for abused and neglected animals. You cry with a friend who shared her feelings about a recent breakup. You even feel “touched” when you meet a stranger who hints at being lonely. You are seemingly compassionate and moved when it relates to those outside your inner circle.
But then you get near those closest and things change. You are cold and intolerant. You listen to your partner or your children as if you were a robot. You find that you are withholding, judgmental and cut off. Frankly, you feel the opposite of compassionate: disconnected and bothered.
Your empathy tank is low for those closest to you. Suddenly you feel as much empathy for them as you would your common criminal. Your ability to understand and share their feelings seems gone. So why can you feel empathetic towards strangers, acquaintances,and animals, but not with your own inner circle? Obviously it is more complicated with those who are in your inner circle, but there are four core reasons why your empathy is lacking.
The first and greatest reason is ANGER. This emotion blocks off your capacity to feel warmth for those you are the closest to. Instead of concern, you feel numb when your partner tells you that he was demoted. He is crying, panicked, and worried — and you are cold. You feel like lecturing, perhaps scolding him, citing the reasons that he should have listened to you or followed your advice. Instead of empathy, all you can drum up is contempt.
The second reason that you don’t feel empathy for those closest to you is because you are too busy PROTECTING yourself. You ask yourself as you read this, “Why would I need to protect myself?” Imagine that your sister is crying and in pain. Unconsciously, you feel her pain is a kind of virus: You fear getting “close” to her feelings/virus because you imagine you will “catch” the same thing. If you allow yourself the luxury of supporting her and actually “feeling” for her, then you imagine that you are “closer” to experiencing pain.
The third reason for being emotionally cut off is to avoid IDENTIFYING yourself in the other. For example, if your child wasn’t invited to a party, you may try to talk her out of being upset. Her left out feelings hit too close to home. They remind you of your childhood. You remember all too well how it felt to be left out. On the other hand, you may be contemptuous of her social status because you were always popular. Therefore, you can’t afford to be empathic for fear that she will misunderstand your compassion for acceptance. Your attempt to rationalize her feelings away are an attempt to cut off your own painful feelings, either for her or for yourself.
The fear of INTIMACY is the fourth reason for being emotionally distant. It is much easier to feel distant from your loved ones than for us to feel close and intimate. Vulnerability to hurt and loss come with closeness. Risking yourself is what is needed to feel intimate and empathic with your inner circle. Often times, when it relates to our children, we have trouble separating and deciphering what is their pain and what is our pain, leaving us particularly blocked off from our own empathic capacity.
If you recognize that you feel empathy for what seems like everyone in the natural world except for those closest to you, there is simply a disconnect or a WALL. You are protecting yourself from hurt. You are compassionate, but you are blocked. There are ways to expand and unclog your empathy, but only if you understand and recognize the plaque in your feelings. The stints you need will be an outpatient procedure at your local therapist’s office. In the mean time, practice acceptance.
Be thoughtful. Notice your thoughts the next time a loved one is asking you to listen to them. What’s going on in your mind? Do you notice disapproval? Do you have any physical sensations? Can you symbolically put your detachment aside and remind yourself the meaning this person has to you?
Truly Listen. Don’t tune out. Instead, actually allow yourself to get into the other person’s shoes. What does it feel like? Do you feel like leaving the room? Is the sadness unbareable?
Resist the Urge to Fix the Problem. Sometimes when our loved ones complain or have a problem, our first instinct is to feel defensive. Or maybe we want to quickly solve the problem so the pain or sadness will go away. We all just want to be heard and understood. If this sounds too simple to work, maybe you are too comfortable being uncomfortable.