Is Empathy Enough by Lynda Smith

“I’m so happy to feel sad.”

Marcy and I had just finished our weekly hour-long call; she’s someone with whom I have worked for about three years. Marcy was explicit early on in our relationship that she wanted “empathy only,” not pro-active coaching with its invitations “to stretch.” Empathy. Only.

At the end of this particular call, Marcy said she felt sad, which, for her, was a relief, even a celebration. “I’m so glad to feel my belly again,” she said. “And to feel the sadness.”

It was empathy that got her there, back to herself, back to the pulsating life in her belly and her heart. Sometimes that life shows up as sadness, even torrents of mourning. And then, the unacknowledged but suffocating tension, the contraction into judgments of self and others, melt into relaxation and open-heartedness. Her vision of how she wants to be, how she wants to show up, comes into clearer focus – as does her sense for how to realize that vision.

I was grateful for this reminder from Marcy that empathy can be, and often is, “enough.” For years in my work with people dealing with a wide spectrum of human challenges, I have thought to myself and shared with colleagues the question: “Is empathy really enough?”

“Enough for what?” would come the reply (often from myself). Is empathy “enough” if someone is suffering from the effects of deep trauma? Is it enough if someone is mired in depression? In my experience, such people do experience immediate relief for being heard when received with empathy. But, often, their troubling inner experiences and their challenges navigating daily life quickly return. So, I figured, empathy isn’t always enough — if the goal is sustained healing, no matter what.

Despite holding this question, I find myself returning again and again to my commitment to empathy, to my desire to release myself and the other from any expectations — of healing, of profound transformation, of anything other than the exquisite mutual trust to enter, together, the empathic field. I want to trust the mystery of what lies beyond that field. Marcy helped me return to that commitment.

She was in a hotel in a city far from home, in the midst of a large weekend-long family celebration for her sister’s retirement. Many family members hadn’t spoken much for a long time. The possibilities for awkwardness and tension were numerous. After receiving empathy for all that was swirling in her – her desire to be authentic, balanced with her desire for ease for everyone; her longing to be herself and be loved; her desire to express her care for others’ well-being while releasing herself from the inner demand to be the only strategy for their care – Marcy experienced that sweet unclenching of her heart. She breathed more deeply. She felt a little sleepy. And, yes, she felt sad – for all of her relatives at the gathering who were, most likely, experiencing some version of the confusion and awkwardness she was feeling, as well as for “the gap” that existed between expectations around this celebratory event and the genuine relational pain and disconnection that lived, mostly unspoken, in the group.

After sitting with her mourning for a few moments, she realized what was true for her: That she wanted to put her attention on how to serve the moment, even if that meant being inauthentic! She wanted to open herself to more acceptance of “the gap,” and to discern when and how to contribute to others in any encounter as the weekend unfolded. Her habitual worry about how to act to please others began to dissolve as she returned her focus to what actions, for her, aligned with her sense of integrity.

At the end of the call, Marcy said, “this empathy stuff is something else.” She wasn’t coached or  nudged to see things in a certain way, she wasn’t invited to stretch into a new capacity or behavior. She was received with empathy. Only. And on this day, it was enough.

Lynda Smith offers one-one-one empathy and coaching, as well as empathic support for couples and small groups. She also connects people interested in this work with other BayNVC collaborative trainers. Write her at lynda@baynvc.org for more information or to schedule an appointment.