Photo of the face of a voltmeter

Rewire Your Brain for Healthy Empathy: Acquire a Voltmeter

Understanding your brain when it comes to feeling empathy can lead to understanding your partner, spouse, and even your boss better. Read on to learn about rewiring your brain for healthy, balanced empathy.

In “rewiring your brain for love,” one of the benefits of mindfulness practice when it comes to relationships could be thought of as acquiring a voltmeter — that quality of empathy that allows you the ability to accurately read the voltage between you and your partner.

Unfortunately, many people don’t “do” empathy in a way that supports a healthy relationship.

I’ve posted below an introduction to different levels of empathy, and how they can serve or undermine your relationships, which I hope you’ll find useful.

Acquiring a Voltmeter: Empathy (Excerpt from Rewire Your Brain For Love)

Insight into your own inner workings, and having a coherent narrative about how you came to be you, are incredibly important for healthy relationships — and when you put those together with being empathic?


Now you got it goin’ on.

Like lots of other people, for too many years I had empathy all wrong. Okay, well, to be more self-empathic, I only had it partly wrong, but it was an important part. Vital, even.

Mostly, I thought being empathic was about tuning in to others, getting what they were feeling. And then, to the very best of my ability, it was my task to try to make everyone feel better.

It worked, in a lot of ways. When I was little, I was really good at being able to detect the mood of my mother and behave in ways that I knew would make her feel better. I figured out how to soothe my dad’s ruffled feathers after my mother had dissed him.

Without consciously realizing it, I’d taken as fact that, if only I tried hard enough, I could make everybody feel better. If they didn’t feel better, I felt like a failure-or, to put it in attachment terms, I was afraid that they’d no longer love me.

And boy-howdy, did I try. Remember how I mentioned before that I had anxious insomnia when I was ten? Yep. That came from trying so hard to make everyone okay, from all of that “empathizing.”
Apparently, I didn’t get the memo that “everyone” included me. I was miserable.

I ended up being a kind of mind-reader/doormat, trying to come to everyone’s emotional rescue. My mother (for whom empathy was not a strong suit) was both mystified and disgusted by how I seemed to be thrilled that high-school friends constantly came to me with their problems. “Why on earth would you ever want to be crawling around in other people’s emotional underwear?”

Learning well and thoroughly from my early experiences with my primary caregivers — well-meaning parents who hadn’t figured enough out about their own attachment shtick — “attachment” for me meant that I had to give myself up and please the other person in order to have someone who was willing to be there for me.

I eventually figured out that being empathic isn’t about being an all-absorbing antenna, a doormat, a mind reader, and/or an emotional rescuer. It’s also not about fear (as in the fear of being alone, having someone be mad at you, disappointing someone, and so on). Being able to understand another person’s state of mind-using an emotional voltmeter-is essential for healthy relationships, but being able to do so without losing your awareness of your own state of mind is vitally important. It’s also something that mindfulness develops and supports extremely well, as you’ll see.

Dogs Do It

Empathy, as it turns out, isn’t a uniquely human trait or ability. At the entry level, it’s “the ability to be affected by and share the emotional state of another being” (as renowned primatologist Frans de Waal, PhD, thinks of it). Anyone who’s ever loved a dog knows what I’m talking about-if you’re happy, the dog’s happy. If you’re blue, the dog’s blue. This is the ground floor of empathy.

This first level of empathy isn’t even something we decide to do. It’s an automatic, involuntary activity that starts in the body. You detect what others are feeling, and before you can even register it consciously, you feel it. Period. Before you even know it.

It’s a “blind” reading, rather than an integrated, useful, feedback-producing voltmeter.

Hook people up to some electrodes designed to measure their facial responses, then subliminally flash facial expressions on a computer screen they’re watching. Even when the images flash so quickly that they’re below the threshold of conscious awareness, the subjects’ facial muscles will match the expressions on the screen. Simple mimicry? Apparently not — because if you ask subjects afterward to rate how they feel, the ones whom you’ve subliminally exposed to smiling faces say they feel good. And the ones to whom you’ve shown the frowning faces feel worse.

Congratulations! You’ve just entered the first level of empathy: emotional contagion. Sounds kind of gross, like catching some nasty skin disease, and, as a kid and young adult, it did feel like I was mucking about in the sewers much of the time, sucked in there without even realizing it, feeling other people’s feelings and often confusing them with my own.

Emotional contagion’s a useful thing, really it is. Take, for example, a herd of zebras. One of them notices a lion-that zebra’s emotional state of arousal and alarm spreads throughout the herd like lightning. None of the zebras pause, stand pensively with hoof to temple, and muse, “Gee, I wonder if Phil’s got a gas bubble or if we’re all about to be eaten?” One zebra feels it, and very quickly they all feel it, automatically activating their evasive maneuvers before becoming lunch.

Pigeons, mice, birds, monkeys, dogs-human infants — they’re all scoring well on this basic level of empathy. They’ve got some of the basic brain and nervous-system parts up and working, including areas that can detect things like changes in posture and behavior.

Since I’m fairly confident that you’re not a zebra, I’m going to have you imagine your human self walking around at a festive gathering of other humans. From across the room, you see a group of other humans you know and trust, and you see them laughing. You smile, and maybe you even feel yourself tickled in your belly, too. Tag! You’ve been emotionally contaminated!

Or you’re in a pretty good mood when your partner comes home from work. She has a tight look on her face, her jaw is clenched, and her briefcase gets plunked a little too firmly on the floor. Your facial muscles shift immediately and there’s a tightness in your stomach. Tag again!

But simply being able to catch someone else’s emotion, like some kind of instant-acting germ, isn’t really what we’re aiming for. Let’s kick it up a notch, and get more of your brain in the game. You want to be more empathic than a pigeon, right?

“I Understand”

Sympathetic concern is the next level of empathy. You start with emotional contagion, then add a capacity to appraise the other’s situation and to try to understand why they’re feeling the way they do. Frans de Waal calls this “cognitive empathy” — you’re putting some thought into it, not just reacting at an automatic, bodily level.

This is also the level at which consoling starts to kick in. If you see your partner coming in the door looking tight and upset, you experience the emotional contagion (you feel some of her distress and alarm in your own body) and you can try to figure out why she’s in such a worked-up state — you might also then be able to consider accurate ways to console her.

Unlike the zebra, you’re not just feeling your partner’s distress, but you’re also figuring out what you might do to alleviate some of it. You might soften your face and ask empathically about what’s up. You might put your arm around her.

Monkeys are capable of showing this level of sympathetic concern, and of consoling one another (one monkey might console the loser of a fight, for example, by putting his arm around him). But it appears (from Frans de Waal’s point of view, as one example) that they’re doing this because, as they experience the emotional contagion of the loser, they feel yucky inside, and in order to alleviate their own yucky feelings, they try to get their tribe-mate to feel better so they can feel better too.

Been there, done that. Not where I wanted to stay. How about you? Ready to take it to the next level? You made it past the pigeons — want to make it past monkeys now?

Get steady and grounded, because you’re going to need to be in two places at once: having a sense of your self and simultaneously being able to take the perspective of the other.

Standing in Their Shoes — With Feeling

Empathic perspective taking is the next level. For a lot of people, “perspective taking” is what it means to be empathic-identifying with the other and being able to see things from someone else’s experience.

But — you could do that without actually feeling much. You can see this in intellectual debates: in order to argue against your opponent effectively, you need to be able to intellectually understand his or her point of view in order to effectively tear it down. From this stance, you can get into the head of the other person and get the cognitive perspective, then explain your perspective from an equally intellectual, cognitive stance. Okay on the debate team, but not so hot in your relationship. You end up missing out on what’s going on emotionally for your significant other, who says, “You just don’t get it!!” From your side, you’re pretty clear that you do, in fact (and I emphasize that word for a reason), “get it,” but you get it only intellectually. So you think your significant other is being irrational. And your significant other is being “irrational,” thank goodness — if we were nothing but rational, we’d be robots.

Feelings and emotions aren’t rational thoughts. They aren’t meant to be. They provide a balance to the rational, and as such they follow a different path. They bring color and life and vibrancy to our existence. They come from a different part of the brain, and they’re important, vital, and too often disrespected, much to our detriment. If you’re going to “get it,” you’ve got to “get” the emotional connection as well.

Taken to its extreme, if you excelled at perspective taking but couldn’t do it at all from an empathic place, you’d make an excellent psychopath — able to understand how other people think, getting their state of mind, without feeling it yourself. No empathy, just perspective taking. You’d be really good at knowing how to torture somebody.

Most people who are in this rational, intellectual approach to relationships aren’t psychopaths at all. They’re simply responding to the world from a protective stance, probably learned early on, which we talked about earlier as “avoidant attachment.” Emotions are these unpredictable and potentially painful things that weren’t safe when I was a kid, so I’ve learned to take a detour around them as often as possible.

And then there’s a counterpart to that stance, the path of many who have a tendency toward anxious attachment. Sometimes the folks in this category are too good at tuning in to and feeling what their partners (or friends or coworkers) are feeling, so much so that their own experiences and perspectives get lost. They often are so very busy taking care of the needs of others that they eventually start to crumble-or get resentful, angry, depressed, burned out, maybe even physically sick.

If this sounds like you, you probably learned to do it this way so early and so well that your brain — which, you’ll remember, wires itself in response to what you do with it most often — might just go blank when you even try to consider doing things differently. Or when you do try to stay on your own side more, you ditch all empathy and just start acting angry and selfish, like a pendulum that was stuck all the way to one side, now knocked loose and stuck on the other extreme of its arc.
To be empathic in a healthy way, you need to be able to be able to tune in to someone else, “get” what his or her experience is, and yet not lose yourself in the deal.

© 2012 Marsha Lucas. All Rights Reserved