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What’s empathetic resonance?

I'd like to talk a little bit about empathy, in this short article. A talk therapy client, discussing a close relationship, was observing that they, the client, since realising the extent of their codependance and the reality of this relationship, was struggling to feel empathy for the other person.


The client wondered, were they cold and unfeeling themselves, due to this lack of empathy and felt sense of how the other person was feeling?


My perspective is that to be truly empathetic towards somebody requires ‘empathetic resonance’. So, the aspect we're empathising with should come from a place of truth, from the other person.


This concept is easily explainable with a comparison to music - when someone can sing a song but not connect to the lyrics, they may deliver quite a passive, non-emotional performance, even though they might be a very good singer.


And another artist can just bring the same song alive, having sung a song that can truly touch people's hearts; even if they're not a great technical singer.


To feel true empathy for somebody's plight is to imagine walking in their shoes. I do believe there needs to be an innate source of truth, congruence or empathetic resonance from the originator, in the first place. And if you're an empathetic person and you're not picking that connection up in someone, I would look out for red flags and alarm bells.


Because, in my experience, there's often a lack of truth here from the originator of the message. This could be due to a great deal of protection and ‘defence mechanisms’, without any untoward or manipulative origins; just somebody who's very defended in their emotions, and looking after themselves.


Alternatively, it could be narcissistic traits or emotional immaturity on the part of the originator. Perhaps the originator is in some form of victimhood, and is looking for sympathy or to be rescued, from a vulnerable person.


Also, my feeling is people who describe themselves as empaths are often easily involved in what I would call blind empathy, so the connection with the other person is typically not boundaried enough. And I think narcissistic folk, emotionally immature people, and people who are stuck in victimhood, easily connect to the sort of people who describe themselves as empaths. Empaths may find themselves absorbing the emotions of others; however I think sometimes they can be blindsided by a ‘false’ message from the originator.


When we are reacting empathetically to a true message, we are reacting to the other person emanating truth, congruence and a sense of vulnerability and needing support. What they probably don't want is to be sympathised with, rescued or fixed, or some other coercive mechanism, which can occur with less emotionally mature folk.


As mentioned, sometimes people are just very closed off and defended due to trauma and strong boundaries. But the feeling of THAT ‘resonance’ in the room with that person is generally very different to the ‘empty’ feeling one gets, as my client felt with their 'person', when we find it hard to connect to what the other person is feeling, because they’re not emanating truth and congruence.


So to conclude, try to trust your empathetic responses, especially the somatic sensations, which can be our nervous system’s ‘truth radar’ about a situation. Empathic resonance, which has its roots in humanistic psychology, allows us to FEEL empathy (but it's a two-way street); it isn’t just via listening to words, but also noticing what’s been left out and omitted, and what the other person’s body language and behaviours tell us. So if you’re typically an empathetic person, yet are struggling to connect in this way with a particular person, maybe ask yourself how truthful their message actually is, and be very mindful within your conversations.


By Kathy Carter



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