Are you an Empopath?

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.

Breaking Up Without Breaking Your Lover Down

“Parting is such sweet sorrow,” Juliet says to Romeo shortly after they’ve declared their love (and shared a few hot kisses on the balcony). If only those were the only kinds of partings our hearts had to endure, the ones rife with the sweetness of what we’ve just known, and the ache of anticipation for when we’ll know it again.

I don’t get to hear too much about those kinds of partings in my role as a couples therapist. Sadly, the partings I’m most familiar with are the ones where I bear witness to a love story coming to an end – less dramatically than Romeo and Juliet’s to be sure, but too often with little sweetness and a soul-crushing amount of sorrow.

If you are the one who’s decided to end your relationship, you have every right to do so. A love relationship is not a prison sentence, you can exercise your free will and leave when it is no longer your desire to be in relationship, regardless of time served. The responsibility that comes along with that free will is to treat your partner ethically, to have the courage to be honest, and to communicate that honesty in a way that is also empathetic.

In years of working with couples, some of the most painful words I’ve heard uttered in the midst of a break-up are along the lines of “… I’m not sure I ever…” For example, “I’m not sure I ever loved you.” “I’m not attracted to you any more, I don’t know if I ever really was.” “I’m not happy in this marriage, I never have been.”

When the desire to break up is one-sided, telling your partner you don’t want to continue the relationship takes away their vision of the future. Adding some version of “and I’m not sure I ever” alters their experience of the past, leaving them questioning what they thought they didn’t have to question.

I don’t discount that “I’m not sure I ever” may be the truth, or that it at least feels like your truth right now; what I’m advocating for is making sure you’re sharing that truth with an audience that is able to withstand hearing it. Your therapist, your best friend, your journal, your local bartender (in a pinch) — all appropriate audiences. The partner who’s trying to cope with the sorrow of an undesired parting — not the right audience.