Psychologists make the distinction between “emotional empathy” and “cognitive empathy” or “social intelligence,” which is to appreciate what’s going on emotionally with another person without any contagion of feelings. Cognitive empathy allows us to understand that someone is suffering and still want to help, but without feeling what they are feeling. This distinction makes all the difference when it comes to serving and still conserving our energy.
Emotional empathy is a disembodied emotion, meaning that your attention is outside of yourself. You project yourself in the other person’s body, you feel what you perceive they feel.
Emotional empathy takes you out of yourself and places you in the other person’s shoes where you are disconnected from your inner world. You are out of your body and in an emotion that doesn’t belong to you. In the process, you contaminate your present moment awareness. In this state, it is easier to betray yourself because you have lost touch with what you genuinely need inside.
Ironically, emotional empathy is detrimental to the very people you serve. You don’t have access to your innate wisdom because your focus is narrow and centred on the painful emotion. You can’t see their innate wisdom. You lose the perspective that they are, in fact, so much more than their emotions and their suffering. Your capacity as a healer and a leader is greatly reduced, and you are losing energy by the second. If you feel what they feel, you can’t hold a neutral and safe space for the other person because you are now in their personal experience; you are now distressed.
I’d like to introduce you to the concept of embodied empathy, a combination of cognitive empathy and compassion that keeps you anchored in your body. You understand the pain or the joy that another person is experiencing, and you can relate to it, but you stay with your own knowing, connected deep inside your core, without personalizing what the other person is feeling. In fact, sometimes, your mere presence will be enough to support the person, and all you need to do is be present and say nothing. Being here and now, in your body, in their presence, creates a neutral and safe space for the other to feel what they feel. It is simple and powerful.
You don’t have to engage in emotional contagion. Through embodied empathy, you can be sensitive, be an empath, and keep your boundaries in place. Be here in your body, not in theirs.