The Secret Power of Empathy

Natalie’s Light:  The Secret Power of Empathy


                        “The healing power of even the most

                        microscopic exchange with someone

                        who knows in a flash precisely what

                        you’re talking about because she

                        experienced that thing too---

           cannot be overestimated.”


I borrowed this quote from a little book by Cheryl Strayed called “Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar (2012).” Ms. Strayed is describing the awesome power of the thing we call Empathy:  the compelling human value which tells us to share the secret private space of the feelings—the emotions-- of another person; to know their pain and anguish, love and joy, as if it is our own. To understand the cloistered halls of empathy with another is to understand the meaning and resolve of Natalie’s Light.


No, we are not talking about Sympathy, which is the weak cousin of empathy. Sympathy is an inclination, or disposition, perhaps a tendency to feel some despair or grief yourself when another person is suffering. Sympathy does not share the emotions of those in pain and does not condescend to know the inner anguish of others. The sympathizer feels bad for themself, and perhaps there is a glimmer of sadness there, a superficial understanding of the suffering; but it is more a process of feeling pity or a shame such a thing has happened to “them.” While empathy applies to all emotions, joy and love just like sadness and pain, sympathy is reserved just for the dark side, like: “It is such a pity, a shame, a loss, that she died.”


One rather cold and emotionless definition of empathy was published in JAMA in 1991 by Bellet and Mahoney, as the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from within the other being’s frame of reference, i.e., the capacity to place oneself in another’s position. Better said, empathy is seeing with the eyes of another, listening with the ears of another and feeling with the heart of another.” This still does not get to the core of what empathy means in human relationships, and even our connections with animals. Psychologists have tried to systematize and quantify empathy by designing an “Empathy Quotient.” This is a series of 60 questions we all can take and allegedly come up with our capacity for empathy. I came up with a grade of 48, and the on-line interpretation of that score is: I am not on the autistic spectrum. Thank God for such a penetrating insight into my psyche. Clearly this scale does not define the power of empathy in human connections. I think we learn about empathy by opening up our minds and hearts to others, giving and experiencing empathy in our lives. Empathy is, in this writer’s experience, the secret power to all sustaining,  fulfilling, and  intimate relationships.


Despite 51 years as a physician, including 20 years of graduate professional training, I learned more about empathy from my children than any textbook or Buddha figure. I must confess before fatherhood I was very pragmatic: the fixer, the solver so to speak; what ever came along, “I will handle it.” But I soon learned, with children, they don’t want or need the parent to fix everything; they want someone to feel their pain, anguish and joy with them. And surprisingly, I began to understand, because when they were in pain, I actually was in pain too; right in there with them. It became an absolute: I had to validate their feelings in a real way, or I was not ever going to connect emotionally with my own children. I learned that feelings are never bad; it is what we do and how we act on those feelings that gets us into trouble. Let me share a personal story about this. We discover the power of empathy in our very personal stories.  


When my mother died 16 years ago, I traveled from the East Coast to California, as the only remaining member of my family of origin. She had died alone after another heart attack and the only family member close by was my daughter, Elise. Elise and I have a special bond as I delivered her in an  Air Force Hospital in South East Asia, and 14 years later, at a Thanksgiving Day dinner, I diagnosed her with a particularly mean cerebral arteriovenous malformation, which subsequently required 32 hours of neurosurgery. She is the bravest person I have ever known. In any case, soon after I arrived in Santa Monica, Elise came with me to the funeral home to make the various arrangements. This process took only a short time, as measured by the clock but seemed like hours. We did have to wait for 20 minutes, sitting together on a small couch in the funeral director’s stuffy Victorian reception room. I had moments of bittersweet reflection; sadness mixed with relief; and frankly trying not to be too emotional. We did not talk at all, Elise and I, during the wait. What was there to say? But then, slowly Elise slipped her left hand into mine, locking fingers with me. We did not speak, but there is no doubt she could feel all the emotions roaring inside me, and that empathy allowed me to feel emotions I had buried over a life time. I am a very emotional man at this stage in life, thanks to the empathy of my children and wife. 


Psychologists say there are different types of empathy, including cognitive empathy, emotional empathy, and somatic empathy. It seems there is a need to push or package all aspects of human interaction into Diagnostic Criteria, and to state who has the capacity and who does not. However, they have not precisely located the specific group of cells in our brains where empathy is born. This attempt at minute dissection of empathy diminishes the secret power of our capacity to reach out and connect with each other. 


During my years as a Psychiatry Resident, I was assigned to a community mental health clinic as the psychiatrist who would provide medication management. I was the only male among this group of about 15 psychologists, social workers and counselors. In their wisdom, the leaders of the clinic decided my experience with them should include time doing individual and group therapy. Almost all the patients were young women and one of the first patients assigned to me for therapy and medication management was a tenuous and reticent  appearing young woman, a lesbian, and a chef. No doubt she was depressed and initially very uncomfortable with me, and I was working much harder than she was in trying to establish a therapeutic relationship. Perhaps some of this was due to her father being a physician, who was not comfortable with the person she had become. She was a highly intelligent, honest, kind, generous and hard working woman. That was not enough for her father.   


Some weeks into our relationship I prodded her to tell me about her childhood.  Reluctantly she told me about an experience that defined how she handled stress in her life. When she was about 8 years old, she was with her father in a Department Store in a large city where the floor was wet, and she slipped and fell. Later, she understood, she had a fracture dislocation of her right elbow. To this day, after all these years of dealing with the most severe trauma you can imagine, her injury still makes me cringe. She was laying on the floor of the store with this injury, and her father leaned over her, close to her face, and told her not to cry; he said he did not want to make a scene in public. Being true to the psychobabble process, I asked her how she felt about al this. Her reply was simple: “I don’t feel anything about it and I don’t want to talk about it.” I tried to connect in some way, but she left the session cool and emotionless.  When she returned the next week she initiated the conversation with the statement: “I have to talk to you about something.” She wanted to know why I was so upset when she told me about her injury. “I thought you were going to cry,” she said and  “I don’t understand what this is all about.” I told her I could not imagine the pain she experienced with her injury, but I could imagine the pain she experienced with her father’s words. I told her about my children and the actual pain I feel when they are suffering, physically or emotionally. She told me it was the first time anyone had ever told her how much they felt her pain. Time went on, she gradually felt better about herself, and I moved on in my career. Still, to this day, this experience was the most important in my professional life. It is unclear who was the therapist in this situation. But it clearly was a manifestation of the power of empathy.


Thus, the first goal of Natalie’s Light, is very clear, and in its way quite pragmatic. We must find a way to be empathic with all those who suffer. It does not matter where they are or what the circumstances, first we go where they are, in body, mind and spirit. We do not start with where we want them to be. In my various readings I ran across a quotation in a book called “The Taming of the Queen” by Phillipa Gregory.  It is historical fiction about the life of Kathryn Parr who became the wife of King Henry VIII, after he had buried four wives. In her struggle in dealing with the pathologies of the King, she wished for the most precious thing:


                        “The most precious thing is a place where you can

                        be as you are, where someone can see you as your

                        true self.”


And that is our first goal. To be that someone who can see you as your true self.


A significant part of the motivation for the writing of this post to the Natalie’s Light blog is a statement that Leslie, Natalie’s mother, has said to me a number of times: Natalie was an empath. Meaning she had a natural capacity to reach out and feel the mental and emotional state of another individual. Indeed, I believe there are those among us who have the capacity to actually feel the pain and anguish of others and their goal is to be there for others; be with them, wherever they are, in their suffering. As with the LAMED VOV, this is a gift, truly a gift from God, if you will. And sometimes the burden of this gift may become too much to carry. At Natalie’s Light we wish to help carry and share such a burden.



Patrick Lillard