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How to be Empathetic Without Being an Enabler

Empathy is a beautiful gift!

Consider a God who has destined us for union with Him and all the saints in the Body of Christ. How fitting that he would give us this intuitive skill to connect with one another emotionally.

But like all good gifts from God, this gift of empathy has also been impacted by the Fall. Where empathy in its ordered form leads us to greater communion, in its disordered form it causes greater division, tribalism, and fosters a culture of victim-thinking.

So how might we empathize well? Start by acknowledging that our emotional lives are shared, yet distinct.

I think of the movie E.T., specifically the scene towards the end when both Elliot and E.T. are growing ill together. Elliot’s brother is talking with one of the scientists about this bond between Elliot and E.T.

“Elliot thinks his thoughts,” the scientist remarks, to which his brother replies, “No, Elliot feels his feelings.”

I think a better response might have been, No, Elliot sees E.T. and thinks his own thoughts, and then has his own feelings.

When these thoughts and feelings match up with truth, it can lead to a beautiful communion. It’s on that level of a shared interior life aligned with God’s truth that allows us as humans to truly share life together in a way that is fruitful and joyful.

But, feelings are not involuntarily caught by one person to another. There is a phrase floating around today, “catching feelings,” that paints an incorrect picture of how our shared emotional life happens. When empathy becomes involuntary, it can lead us to some disempowering places where we might start believing that we have no control over our emotional life.

But emotions aren’t caught from another person. Emotions come from our thoughts, and thoughts require consent, be it conscious or subconscious consent. When we empathize with another person, we connect first in thought, then our emotions follow.

Now, there are some schools of thought that teach humans can connect, first, emotionally, prior to any engagement of thought. I saw a documentary once where a man was able to impact the emotional read on a culture of yogurt by his own negative thinking and emotions. Even if it is a part of God’s design for us to connect emotionally on some involuntary level, at some point we still have the freedom to consent to that emotion and allow it to incline us where it may.

So, yes, maybe Elliot does feel E.T.’s feelings, but he also gets to consent to whether or not he continues feeling them by the thoughts he chooses to think. His free will can show up as a free won’t, too.

If we fail to understand how our emotional lives are distinct, we might fall into thinking that fixing our emotions starts with changing our environment. We need to distance ourselves from “negative people”, instate new legislation, or fix other people’s emotions so that we get to stop feeling sad, or angry, or hurt. But the manipulative actions that typically follow cause more harm than good and end up reinforcing a feeling of powerlessness over our emotional lives.

While we may want to share an emotional life with another person, it’s important to note that not everyone is experiencing an ordered emotional life. When a friend comes to you complaining about an argument with his spouse, he may feel very justified in his personal opinion of the matter. But it may not be an opinion aligned with truth. Maybe your friend needs to own his part in the argument. You may want to connect with your friend, but if he’s feeling very self-righteous in that moment, your willful sharing in that disordered emotion might do more harm than good and only reinforce his victim story and disordered perception of the argument with his spouse.

When we empathize with disordered emotions, the fruits never lead to lasting unity. For example, how often do we fall to the sin of gossiping in order to grasp at some shallow connection with another person in the moment. But gossiping by its nature will always tear at the Body of Christ. It will always fracture a relationship.

When someone is feeling a disordered emotion it is because they suspended their own reason and judgment in the first place. Their thoughts are not aligned with truth. When we unthinkingly empathize with another person in their disordered emotion, we suspend reason and judgment and unite emotionally on a shared lie or misunderstanding of reality. This never bodes well for human thriving.

When this empathy on a shared lie or misunderstanding begins to happen on a group scale, we get movements or special interest groups that focus their attention on fixing a problem that exists only in their minds. They spend more of their time trying to convince the world of their cause and maligning those who do not share their uninformed view point. Here, this disordered empathy now inclines an entire group of people to think and act a certain way–a way that is divorced from the fullness of truth and inclined to vicious acts.

That’s a problem, folks. That’s an abuse of empathy.

So, the next time a friend comes to you with an emotional story to tell, keep your intellect engaged. Get curious about why they are feeling the way that they are feeling, and know that you can create better connections by building on truth rather than shallowly empathizing with their disordered emotions.