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5 Blocks To Empathy

Mother kissing baby, Raleigh Psychotherapy, counseling, empathy, Katherine Broadway

“I think we all have empathy. We may not have enough courage to display it.”

Maya Angelou

Empathy is so important and you might wonder why people don’t practice it more often especially in the light of current events. As with most human characteristics and behaviors, there is more to the story than meets the eye.

Empathy has to be developed. It is taught and practiced. We learn through words, actions and the experiences we have with important caretakers in our life. As we have pointed out before, when our teachers are less than adequate, we don’t progress as far as we could. Blocks can and will develop that greatly hamper or prevent our ability to be empathic.


Babies in a hospital nursery will begin to cry as they hear others crying. Experts believe this is one of the first empathic responses. It develops further through a secure attachment with the baby’s mother or main caretaker. Babies who are treated tenderly when they cry or are scared or injured will begin to develop an internal environment that will foster the feeling of empathy. If they are treated with indifference or negativity when they have needs, they will begin to build walls inside to protect themselves from their feelings of hurt, pain, and anger. This is the beginning of the building of barriers or blocks that get in the way of being able to express empathy.


The role you play in your family also contributes to your capacity to empathize with others. When it is the child’s job to help the parent, the child’s needs do not get met. Instead, the child shuts off feelings and begins to live out of a false-self.


Let’s use Tony for an example. Tony’s job in his family was to take care of his mother’s emotions. After his father would hurt her, he would hug her and tell her she was the greatest mom. All went well as long as his mother felt his love and care.

However, no child is capable of caring for a parent in that way. Eventually, his mother would become angry and she would vent that anger on him. He never knew when this would happen. He felt blindsided by her change in mood.

This taught Tony to be cautious and never trust the responses of others. He developed a belief that being tender and caring was dangerous. He buried his feelings and became distant.Tony’s story highlights five ways we block empathy.

5 Blocks to Empathy

1. Burying feelings deep inside:

When you do, defenses begin to form that cause you to be trapped inside and unable to feel or express emotions. You become afraid to connect with yourself and others. There is a fear of being known and allowing others to see your feelings. To do so, would open the door for having that information used against you.

Without the ability to be in touch with your feelings it is impossible to be empathic.

2. Becoming hyper-vigilant:

Instead of interacting with others, you watch and wait for them to attack. You might not notice that you are doing this because it is occurring on a silent unconscious level. Your false-self precedes you where ever you go and whatever you do.

The fear of being hurt or ridiculed rules your life. As you focus on protecting yourself it becomes impossible to open yourself to the experience of another. It is hard to listen to what someone is experiencing, feeling and needing when you feel the need to protect yourself.

3. Hiding your feelings:

You experience your feelings and can identify them, but believe you must hide them. Maybe you come from a family where it was important to be perfect, and acknowledging emotions meant that you were less than perfect.

You may come from a family where showing feelings was a sign of weakness. Others could spot this vulnerability and you would be singled out and attacked. Hiding your emotions kept you safe.

4. Being Afraid to Receive:

In a family where there is a scarcity of care and concern when someone did take an interest in you, there usually was a price to be paid. To receive anything was more dangerous than to do without. The fear of what that attention was going to cost adds to the need to be hyper-vigilant. Every gift, word or gesture has to be careful weighed.

A big part of intimacy is receiving the love and care of others. Giving makes love grow only if it is done in an environment where you not only listening but are listened to as well.

5. You became a human “doer” and not a human being:

Your purpose in childhood was to meet your parent’s needs, their dreams and desires. The price of getting your parent’s approval and recognition was to give up your true self and become who they wanted and needed you to be.

This creates repressed rage and sadness that you are not loved for who you are. It is a form of abandonment, that leads to the development of a false-self and a fear of getting emotionally close. These people may be very popular and successful, yet no one really knows them. Inside they feel fragmented and empty like something is missing. Deep inside they feel that there is something intrinsically wrong with them.

Do you have problems with accepting and expressing empathy? Do you see any of these blocks inside of yourself? If you are ready for a change, call me at (919)881-2001.

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