Extreme empathy

In coaching, we speak a lot about empathy being a gateway to understanding our clients’ internal landscapes. The ability to be sensitive to what another is feeling in our work is, well, everything. Without some identification with the client’s experience, we are in a place of judging or advising from an outside perspective – nothing we as coaches want to be doing.

Empathy is a huge part of what makes a great healer – one who literally feels his or her clients (I mean, how great is it to be not only seen – but felt?). When we are being empathetic, we are taking in another’s emotions and experiencing them as our own, providing a mirror for the other person so that they feel understood. Interestingly, though, it is easy for this to be taken to an extreme. When our empathy is on overdrive, it can be subtly detrimental to both us and our clients.

When we process the emotions of another—literally taking them in and running them through our systems—we’re taking a piece of the experience away from that person. We’re actually feeling FOR them. Plus, when our own space becomes muddied with others’ feelings, it takes away from our own clarity, groundedness, and effectiveness.

Compassion, on the other hand, is a holding of loving, non-judging space for another to have their experience without our interference. And compassion cannot exist without empathy: something in us has to identify with what’s happening in another if we’re going to have compassion for them.

So really, empathy is most effective when it is invoked alongside compassion, and used to inform it. Moreover, it keeps us safe from taking on energies and emotions that don’t belong to us.

So how to keep empathy in balance?

One way I’ve been trying to do this is to endeavor to discern whether I’m feeling others’ emotions for them (extreme empathy) versus holding space for them to feel their own (compassion informed by empathy). Daily, I try to explore what my own energy feels like when I’m alone and all is quiet. First, I ground myself to the earth (a very important step, and a very difficult one for me, an Enneagram 9!), and then put an imaginary boundary around my personal space. From there, I feel into what belongs inside that space versus what doesn’t.

This is a hugely challenging inquiry for me, and one that I’m sure will last a lifetime. However, it’s something that feels essential to ensuring the richest experience of life, both for myself and for those with whom I come in contact.

What is your experience of how empathy and compassion coexist in your work and life? What are your practices to stay separate from your clients, yet remain powerfully loving?