I have a penchant for making up words, a trait that is shared by many people in my life. My husband, for example, frequently gives me updates on one of our cats’ desires for ‘affectionation’ (always high).
Recently a client and I coined a new term – empopathy – to describe a particular difficulty he was experiencing. What is an empopath? If you imagine the ability to feel for and empathize with others as existing on a continuum, psychopaths perch on the outer edge of one end of the continuum. Empopaths sit (gingerly, quietly, without taking up too much space) on the other.
Psychopathy is characterized in part by an inability to experience empathy, resulting in a lack of the feelings of guilt or remorse that commonly ground interpersonal behaviour. Conversely, empopathy is a pathologically high and misdirected experience of empathy, leading to feelings of guilt, remorse, and misplaced responsibility run amok.
So how do you differentiate between appropriately empathizing with another and empopathy? For me, truly empathizing with someone requires us to fully see and hear them. We try and understand their experience from their own perspective, and, as Brene Brown puts it, “connect with something in ourselves that knows that feeling.”
Unfortunately that’s also where empathy can go off-course. Connecting with our own experiences and emotions is the gateway to empathizing with another, but it can also lead us down the wrong path since the person whose experiences we’re trying to understand happens to be not-us.
If you tell me that your relationship just ended and I respond with “I get it, I know it’s hard to feel unlovable and ugly and worthless,” you might feel understood and relieved that someone else is putting into words what you’ve been feeling. You might also feel taken-aback and disconnected if your experience was more along the lines of “she wasn’t really right for me.”
Empathy can also turn into empopathy when we project too much of ourselves into the other’s experience in another way, when what we’re empathizing with is not the other person’s pain but our own distress at feeling that we’ve had a hand in causing their pain.
A number of years ago, a man I was working with described a relationship break up he’d gone through. He said, “I went over to her place to tell her I wanted to end things. She cried, so 2 years later I left.” While he was no doubt empathizing with his girlfriend’s distress at the prospect of breaking up, his strongest connection in that moment was to his own feelings about being the source of that distress. Ultimately, it was empathizing with that feeling he found too much to bear.