You Smell Bad. I Want to Help You.: Prerequisites for Empathy

Connection: Your Pain is My Pain, Your Pleasure is Nice

Recently, I was wrestling with Singer’s Paradox as outlined by the wonderful Seth Godin in this blog post.

One of the concepts is that you might choose to save a drowning child’s life to avoid the risk of being shamed. For sure. But I think I would shame myself about twenty times before another human could get a thought out.

I don’t need social shaming to save the child in front of me. I can shame myself just fine. But why am I shaming myself? Where is that coming from?

Saving the child is an action that could be called prosocial behavior. Prosocial behavior keeps you in the tribe and empathy is its trigger.

When you see someone in pain, there are areas in the brain that fire to cause you to experience their pain vicariously. Literally, “I feel your pain.”

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It turns out that there is an overlap in the areas of the brain that experience personal pain and vicarious (others’) pain. Your brain is not sure what’s your pain and what’s their pain. It’s both. It gets cooler. Even those people who have that congenital insensitivity to pain — their brains will still fire this way when they see others in pain. So “I only feel your pain.” I know research articles are not the most fun read but this one, The Anatomy of Empathy, was fascinating!

So, even without someone there to shame you, you will feel motivated to help a drowning child. There is a caveat and it is basically what Singer’s Paradox is about. There are children dying every day and we go about our business.

The Anatomy of Empathy talked about “vicarious experiences” triggering the parts of the brain involved in empathy. Am I having a vicarious experience right now about the billions of people suffering? There is no empathy without the vicarious experience. Hence charitable organizations should all be posting stories on YouTube non-stop. If I don’t feel their pain vicariously, I will not part with my resources.

In contrast, two separate areas of your brain fire when you experience your pleasure and when you experience someone else’s pleasure. There is no overlap. So, it’s nice that you won the lottery but I’m still pretty clear that it’s your money.

Energy: If you’re going to complain you’d better bring me a Snickers.

Considering empathy is a process in the brain, it requires energy. Thinking about this took me back to a time when I actively killed my empathy and at the same time ended my counseling career.

I loved being a counselor and for the first time in my life I could say without a doubt that I was really good at my job. I compulsively love people, even the creepy ones. Especially the creepy ones. I could create a safe environment. I could let go of the outcome and let people who weren’t ready to change stay the way they were without losing sleep.

It was an intense and stressful job but it was invigorating. It took me through massive rounds of personal growth. At some point during an argument with my husband I realized that he was not going through any such journey. As I made realizations and began to change my behavior and try and change our relationship dynamics, he was wondering, “How long before we get back to the status quo. Because I liked the status quo.”

I had my empathy turned on full blast and every tiny wound for him was a wound for me — on top of my own. I was carrying the pain of two people in one mind/body. My immune system ended up depressed and I would have to go to the emergency room every time I got sick because it would spiral. I started avoiding clients at work and booking my schedule with other appointments. I made less eye contact. I stopped touching people. There was no fuel to run the empathy system.

Some part of me knew that my husband and I needed to part. I was super married though. It took four years for this to come out of my mouth. In the meantime, in the interest of survival, my mind/body shut off my empathy. I think I would have saved a drowning child but I could give a shit about anything else (except for maybe some self-pity and how much tequila was in the house).

Empathy takes energy and I had none. Without it I was bad at my job. I quit and no one was too broken up about it.

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Suspension of Judgment: Let me tell you about you

Having empathy for someone in physical pain is different than emotional pain. We know each other too well.

When a puppy whines or some infant cries, no one thinks they’re faking it. When a toddler cries, we often first ask ourselves if we are being manipulated. If you’re the parent, you learn the difference between the “need” cry and the “manipulation” cry. I have a clear memory of my niece in her crib, tearless eyes, yelling her trigger words, “Mommy-Daddy-Owie” over and over and over. Doesn’t tug so hard on the heart strings.

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Have you ever had someone tell you a sob story and you said all the right things to their face, but in your head, you thought, “You are just whining. You did this to yourself.”

You have judged them. You have an expectation for them to suck it up, stop complaining and choose different behaviors. To be clear, I’m not saying your judgment is right or wrong. I’m not after what’s right and wrong. I’m after what is.

In the middle of the bad years of my marriage, my husband would come home to his dear wife for support and empathy. He would often complain about hating his job as he had hated all his jobs.

I’m sure you could guess how that went down. I was in a state of constant defensiveness and judging him for anything and everything before he even opened his mouth. I would come back with the ultra-compassionate, “The one constant in all of your bad jobs is what now? Could it be you?” Aaah, can you feel the love?

Did he stop feeling distress just because he’d been in a particular thought pattern for 10 years? No. Did I feel his pain anymore? Nope. I wanted him to be a certain way, not be who is was in that moment. I had expectations and when he didn’t meet them, I judged him for it (while complaining that he didn’t want to spend more time with me or connect on a deeper level, btw).

Chemistry: You smell bad. I want to help you.

It turns out that if you smell the anxiety sweats of a stranger, even if you can’t detect the scent, it will fire the areas of the brain that regulate empathy. The details are here. This lends more fuel to the Connection prerequisite. I am almost positive this happened to me.

I was having a late-night glass of wine with my sister one night a while after my divorce. I was working in marketing and had been carrying around the dead carcass of my beloved empathy wondering if I could ever revive it.

Cool as a cucumber, my sister confessed to me something emotionally gut wrenching. No pain signals in her body language or tone that I could explicitly detect.

I immediately said, “Oh my God! That’s not okay.” I started to cry. Of course, she broke down and started to share her deeper levels of the experience. Two wine bottle’s worth.

My empathy was not dead. It was reborn in that moment. It took a while to get it revved up again, but now more days than not it’s rolling at the old firehose level.


I like the idea that every time I learn something I should use it to make the world a better place. From this I take the following:

1. Don’t shy away from connection. Dive in.

2. The better job I do of taking care of myself, the more open to connecting I can be.

3. Build awareness around the times when I notice I don’t feel empathy for someone in distress. It means I’m judging them.

4. Breathe deep. You might smell someone in need.

Productivity/mastermind nerd, coach in Seth Godin’s Akimbo community, inbound digital marketer, former mental health professional, Hasher & Airbnb owner.

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