True Empathy

Someone comes to you and says, “Can we talk? I’m feeling down today. My boss has really been riding me lately, and for no reason.” This is then followed by a long list of misdeeds on the part of the boss, along with the emotional strain this has caused in your friend.

Now the ball is in your court. What do you do? Do you offer this person the kind of spiritual wisdom that has helped you (“You know, none of it is real.”)? Do you give some more down-to-earth advice (“Have you considered doing this…?”)? Do you just try to be a good listener (“What I hear you saying is…”)? Do you empathize (“I can understand exactly how you feel. As you talk, I’m feeling it, too.”)?

Most of us, I think, feel somewhat hamstrung between offering our highest, wisest spiritual advice and offering our empathy. The drawback of the first is that we can sound preachy and phony, and make the other person feel lectured to and not understood. The drawback of the second is that we can feel like we are merely reinforcing that person’s pain and weakness.

There is a remarkable section in the Text that addresses this very issue. It is called “True Empathy” (T-16.I) and it originated as a special message to Helen and Bill. I don’t know what were the circumstances that prompted it, but it contains a remarkable teaching on what empathy really means.

It is a challenging section. In fact, I confessed to the class that I don’t feel I have gone very far in applying its counsel, even though I have read it and taught it many times. My tendency is to err on the side of empathizing, perhaps even commiserating, because my fear is to have someone come to me with genuine feelings and be met with unhelpful spiritual platitudes. A friend of mine calls this “platitudinal healing.” We’ve all been on the receiving end of that (and we’ve probably been on the giving end of it, too), and it can be so unhelpful. So I try to give that a very wide berth, and in the process, I tend to fall into exactly the kind of empathy that this section is criticizing.

Let’s dive into the section itself, beginning with paragraph 1:

To empathize does not mean to join in suffering, for that is what you must refuse to understand. That is the ego’s interpretation of empathy, and is always used to form a special relationship in which the suffering is shared. The capacity to empathize is very useful to the Holy Spirit, provided you let Him use it in His way. His way is very different. He does not understand suffering, and would have you teach it is not understandable. When He relates through you, He does not relate through your ego to another ego. He does not join in pain, understanding that healing pain is not accomplished by delusional attempts to enter into it, and lighten it by sharing the delusion.

This section opens by saying that “To empathize does not mean to join in suffering.” Yet that, of course, is exactly what it normally means. Empathy is:

the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner; also : the capacity for this. (Merriam-Webster online)

Empathy means to share someone’s feelings, especially (in this context) that person’s feelings of pain. The idea is that you understand what someone is feeling, and through understanding it, you validate it, you see the validity in it, and through seeing the validity in it, you feel it with them. Finally, by feeling it with them, you lighten their suffering, for now they are not alone and they are not crazy—their feelings have been validated by someone else who is seeing and feeling the same thing they are.

By taking exception with all this, Jesus is taking exception with empathy itself, at least as we understand it. What’s wrong with conventional empathy? The next paragraph will add more to this picture, but this first paragraph tells us a good deal. We can group its criticisms into two basic ideas. First, empathy is based on understanding someone’s suffering (note how the word understanding appears in the definition of empathy and several times in the first paragraph of this section), and Jesus is saying that suffering is not understandable—meaning, it makes no sense. The paragraph ends by saying something even stronger. It calls suffering “delusional.” If suffering is delusional, then how can one find release from suffering? Obviously, that can only come from waking up from the delusion. Yet how can you do this if you yourself enter into the delusion and share it? “Understanding” a delusion can only reinforce the delusion, not dispel it.

The second criticism, which will be expanded on in the next paragraph, is that empathy is really about the joining of egos. I get that from the line “relate through your ego to another ego.” That’s what empathy is, isn’t it? Your ego is looking at another ego’s suffering and saying, “I can relate.” In doing that, you are validating that person’s identity as an ego, and you are validating your own at the same time. And then one more thing is going on. You are forming a special relationship with that ego. You are saying, “Others may not get your pain, but I get it. I am the one who understands. I’m there for you.” So you are validating that person’s identity as a suffering ego, and putting forth your identity as an understanding ego, and forming a bond which is the special joining of those two ego identities.

Now let’s look at the second paragraph:

The clearest proof that empathy as the ego uses it is destructive lies in the fact that it is applied only to certain types of problems and in certain people. These it selects out, and joins with. And it never joins except to strengthen itself. Having identified with what it thinks it understands, the ego sees itself and would increase itself by sharing what is like itself. Make no mistake about this maneuver; the ego always empathizes to weaken, and to weaken is always to attack. You do not know what empathizing means. Yet of this you may be sure; if you will merely sit quietly by and let the Holy Spirit relate through you, you will empathize with strength, and will gain in strength and not in weakness. (italics from original dictation)

This paragraph really gets to the dark underbelly of empathy. First, it notes that we don’t empathize across the board, with all problems in all people. Why is that? Why are we so selective in what we empathize with? The reason is not pretty. We pick those particular people because their ego is like our ego. And we pick those particular problems because their problems are like our problems. In other words, in empathizing with them, we are really seeing our own ego getting beat up by the world, and we are validating what a terrible injustice that is. With our empathy, we are really saying, “When that was done to me, how wrong they were, and how right I was!” By empathizing with them, then, we are validating our own ego. They think we are supporting them, validating them, cheering them on, but while we look at them, they don’t realize that we are really staring at our own reflection in their mirror, and validating that.

So our ego is really just trying to strengthen itself. And as the paragraph goes on to say, it is also trying to weaken the other. How do we weaken the other with our empathy? The section doesn’t really elaborate on this, but I suspect that we weaken them simply by affirming their weakness, their victimization at the hands of the world. The paragraph’s later recommendation that we empathize with strength implies that right now we are empathizing with that person’s weakness, with their image of being a weak, vulnerable ego under attack by the world. And what we empathize with, we reinforce. By empathizing with their weakness, then, we weaken them. Thus, we end up attacking the very person who we are trying to support.

The solution is to realize that we have no clue what empathizing means. Our job is to step back—to sit quietly by—and let the Holy Spirit relate through us. And if we do, He will empathize with that person’s strength. We’ll explore what that means later. For now, let’s go on to the third paragraph:

Your part is only to remember this; you do not want anything you value to come of a relationship. You choose neither to hurt it nor to heal it in your own way. You do not know what healing is. All you have learned of empathy is from the past. And there is nothing from the past that you would share, for there is nothing from the past that you would keep. Do not use empathy to make the past real, and so perpetuate it. Step gently aside, and let healing be done for you. Keep but one thought in mind and do not lose sight of it, however tempted you may be to judge any situation, and to determine your response by judging it. Focus your mind only on this:

I am not alone, and I would not intrude the past upon my Guest.
I have invited Him, and He is here.
I need do nothing except not to interfere.

This is radical counsel. Try to forget all those things you want to come of a relationship. Don’t go after them. Try to realize you don’t really want them. If you try to heal the relationship in your way you’ll just make the past real and thereby perpetuate it. This, in its most immediate context, refers to the fact that we learned what empathy is in the past. But taking in a slightly broader context, it means, as we saw in the last paragraph, that what we empathize with those things that remind us of our own past victimization. Thus, as long as we focus on empathy as conventionally understood, we cannot let go of our past.

Then we are given a priceless practice for letting the Holy Spirit relate through us. Let’s break this practice down:

I am not alone: The Holy Spirit is with me

Intrude the past upon: to thrust my past ideas about empathy, and my past wounds, upon the Holy Spirit

My Guest: The Holy Spirit

I have invited Him: through my answering of God’s Call—putting my feet on the path. The invitation need not be a recent or explicit one.

I need do nothing: The Holy Spirit will come through me and heal this person. It’s not my job to heal this person.

Except not to interfere: I need only step aside, realizing I don’t want what I value to come of the relationship, realizing I don’t know what healing is, realizing I don’t know what empathy is.

The essential dynamic here is that you have, through putting your feet on the path, invited the Holy Spirit into your life. He is your invited Guest, and He is here. Yet by trying to help this person in your way, with your ideas of how it should be done, you intrude your past on Him, which is a very rude way to treat an invited guest, especially a guest who is here to do a job for you. Greg came up with this analogy. You invite a contractor over to do a job in your house, but then you smother him with all your ideas of how he should do his job, getting in his way, and essentially making him unable to do it. Greg said, “Those guys just hate that.”

Our goal, then, is to step aside, get out of the way, and let the Holy Spirit do His job. He’s the expert, why not let Him work? How does He want to relate through us to this person? What does He want to say? How does He want to empathize with this person?

Notice how similar this practice is to the “truly helpful” prayer from the beginning of the Text. Both address the situation of trying to help another person. Both take the pressure off of the helper role by having you get out of the way and let the Holy Spirit take charge. “I do not have to worry about what to say or what to do, because He Who sent me will direct me” is not so different from “I need do nothing except not to interfere.” What does this say about the chief obstacle in our efforts to be truly helpful? It says, quite simply, that as helpers we are our own worst enemy.

I’d like to return to the earlier statement of empathizing with strength. We are prone to empathizing with the person’s weakness, with their vulnerability, their fragility. The Holy Spirit, as we saw, wants to empathize with their strength. Yet, of course, they aren’t feeling their strength right now. That’s why they want our empathy. How can the Holy Spirit, then, empathize with their strength when they aren’t feeling it? The whole nature of empathy is that you feel what they are feeling. For empathizing with strength to be legitimately called empathy, then, we have to assume that on some unconscious level they are feeling their strength. What the Holy Spirit does, therefore, is to feel with them something they aren’t consciously feeling right now. And by feeling it with them, to bring it into their consciousness. Somewhere inside, they are feeling their strength, and by Him empathizing with that buried part of them, He is siding with it, and thus reinforcing it. The idea of empathizing with strength, then, is basically the same as the passage which says, “When a brother behaves insanely, you can heal him only by perceiving the sanity in him” (T-9.III.5:1).

All of this raises for me the specter of being spiritually phony, of employing that dread platitudinal healing. “I know you feel loss over your mother’s death, but remember, you are as God created you.” Nicola pointed out in class that we will accept such spiritual truths not from someone who is uncomfortable with our pain and wanting to swat it away with platitudes, but from someone who we know really believes those truths. If Jesus were standing before, telling you that you are as God created you, it would have so much more impact, simply because you realize that he is speaking the truths that he directly knows.

That for me reinforces the idea of really trying to let the Holy Spirit into our mind and really allowing Him to feel that person’s strength for us. Then what we say can take on a sincerity far beyond what we can muster on our own. The Song of Prayer talks about this:

He knows the way to make of every call [from a brother] a help to you, as you arise in haste to go at last unto your Father’s house. Now can He make your footsteps sure, your words sincere; not with your own sincerity, but with His Own. (S-2.III.3:2-3)

I’m not going to comment much on the remaining paragraphs in this section. I’ll simply include them below and then make a few comments along the way.

True empathy is of Him Who knows what it is. You will learn His interpretation of it if you let Him use your capacity for strength, and not for weakness. He will not desert you, but be sure that you desert not Him. Humility is strength in this sense only; that to recognize and accept the fact that you do not know is to recognize and accept the fact that He does know. You are not sure that He will do His part, because you have never yet done yours completely. You cannot know how to respond to what you do not understand. Be tempted not in this, and yield not to the ego’s triumphant use of empathy for its glory.

This approach naturally raises doubts in us about whether or not the Holy Spirit will actually come in and relate through us. This says that we only doubt that because we haven’t fully stepped aside and given place to Him.

The triumph of weakness is not what you would offer to a brother. And yet you recognize no triumph but this. This is not knowledge, and the form of empathy which would bring this about is so distorted that it would imprison what it would release. The unredeemed cannot redeem, yet they have a Redeemer. Attempt to teach Him not. You are the learner; He the Teacher. Do not confuse your role with His, for this will never bring peace to anyone. Offer your empathy to Him for it is His perception and His strength that you would share. And let Him offer you His strength and His perception, to be shared through you.

The meaning of love is lost in any relationship that looks to weakness, and hopes to find love there. The power of love, which is its meaning, lies in the strength of God that hovers over it and blesses it silently by enveloping it in healing wings. Let this be, and do not try to substitute your “miracle” for this.

Conventional empathy seeks to establish relationships on the basis of joining in our victimhood. Yet this, according to the above passage, obscures the real meaning of love, which lies in the strength of God that surrounds the two people.

I have said that if a brother asks a foolish thing of you to do it. But be certain that this does not mean to do a foolish thing that would hurt either him or you, for what would hurt one will hurt the other. Foolish requests are foolish merely because they conflict, since they always contain some element of specialness. Only the Holy Spirit recognizes foolish needs as well as real ones. And He will teach you how to meet both without losing either.

You will attempt to do this only in secrecy. And you will think that by meeting the needs of one you do not jeopardize another, because you keep them separate and secret from each other. That is not the way, for it leads not to life and truth. No needs will long be left unmet if you leave them all to Him Whose function is to meet them. That is His function, and not yours. He will not meet them secretly, for He would share everything you give through Him. That is why He gives it. What you give through Him is for the whole Sonship, not for part of it. Leave Him His function, for He will fulfill it if you but ask Him to enter your relationships, and bless them for you.

The above material is the famous caveat to the sentence we focused on a couple of weeks ago: “Recognize what does not matter, and if your brothers ask you to do something ‘outrageous,’ do it because it does not matter” (T-12.III.4:1). This caveat then has two contexts: the earlier outrageous request discussion and the empathy discussion in this section. Given both contexts, here is what I see it as meaning:

If a brother comes to you, asking you to empathize (in the conventional sense), that is a foolish request—foolish, because he is asking you to side with him against someone else, asking you to give him special treatment. This is not a request you should honor—at least at face value—for it will bring hurt. Yet there is a real need underneath this foolish one, and if you follow the Holy Spirit, He can tell you how to meet the foolish one and the real one at the same time. In this case, He will have you meet the request for empathy with a different kind of empathy, an empathy that doesn’t hurt anyone. This is a feat that your empathy can’t pull off. What you will try to do is meet the needs of the person in front of you, by empathizing with his pain over being mistreated, and then you will try to keep what you said secret from the person who mistreated him, the person you are both siding against. Your hope is that by keeping it secret from this other person, you won’t end up hurting him.

I think we have all been there, haven’t we? You commiserate with one person, and then hope to God that the other guy—the one you commiserated about—doesn’t find out. Something always feels wrong about that, but it seems like there is no other way to support the person in front of you. The message of this section is that, left to your own devices, there is no other way. Yet with the Holy Spirit’s guidance, there is. He will empathize through you in a way that only empowers all concerned. Wouldn’t that be an incredible relief?


For this exercise, which will be long, please choose a situation in which you have felt called on to offer empathy as conventionally understood. It may have been a one-time request. It will be even better, though, if it is an ongoing situation, where you are asked again and again to offer empathy to the same person regarding the same situation. There must be someone in your life who has asked or repeatedly asks you to empathize, sympathize, commiserate, or understand their pain. Once you’ve chosen something, write the situation here and then follow the instructions below.

Are you empathizing with a problem and a person that reminds you of yourself being mistreated in the past? If so, what past injustices against you come to mind?

Did your ego feel secretly vindicated about its own past victimization by your empathizing with this person? Can you put this sense of vindication into a sentence (e.g., “When they did that same thing to me, they were wrong and I was right”)?

Do you see how you were giving this person the message that they are weak and frail? Try saying silently to them, “You are weak and frail and vulnerable, at the mercy of countless attackers.” How does that feel?

How does it feel to imagine that by empathizing, your ego was trying to strengthen itself and weaken the other person?

What kind of special bond were you trying to form through your empathy? Try to put it into the following form: “Because I empathize, I show this person that I am the one who ____________________ and that therefore I deserve ____________________ from this person in the future.”

By empathizing, did you subtly join in blaming the person who supposedly caused your friend’s suffering? If so, did you try to therefore keep secret what you said, so that the one who “caused” her suffering wouldn’t find out what you said? Who were you trying to keep the secret from?

Try to realize that you really don’t know what will strengthen this person, what will help the relationship, and what will strengthen you. Say to yourself,

I am not alone, and I would not intrude the past upon my Guest.
I have invited Him, and He is here.
I need do nothing, except not to interfere.

Say it again. Feel the relief of not having to figure out how to help this person. Feel the relief of being able to empower all concerned. Feel the relief at being able to sit quietly by and do nothing. Trust that if you really step aside, the Holy Spirit will relate through, and do a better job than you ever could alone.

Now try to let Him see this person through your eyes. He is looking for this person’s strengths, the very strengths that could deliver them in this situation. Let Him look through you and see their strengths. Then write down whatever He sees through you.

Now try to feel Him identifying with those strengths, join with Him in feeling with those strengths, feeling the strength that those strengths feel.

Now try to let Him relate through you, relating to those strengths, conveying His empathy with those strengths, and thereby drawing those strengths to the surface. What does He say through you? Please write it down.


[Please note: ACIM passages quoted in this article reference the Foundation for Inner Peace (FIP) Edition.]