Is it empathy or projection?

Ten Ways to Identify the Difference

I’m teaching the 3rd cohort of the Dynamic Emotional Integration® series this year, and one of the students had an excellent question about whether we can, in fact, be accurate about other people’s emotions. Are we able to accurately read the emotions of others, or are we simply projecting based on our own understanding?

Some people make empathic accuracy difficult, because they want to argue about any emotion we suggest:

“I’m not angry — you’re angry!”

“I’m not afraid; fear is for cowards.”

“I’m not sad about it at all. I’m happy it’s over!”

It can be very confusing to try to develop your Empathic Accuracy around people who don’t want to talk about emotions. You can feel as if you’re projecting instead of truly empathizing.

Luckily, there are ways to tell the difference, and ways to develop your empathic accuracy.

This excerpt is from pages 205-207 in my book, The Art of Empathy: A Complete Guide to Life’s Most Essential Skill.

Ten possibilities to explore

Sometimes, people will flat out tell you that an emotion you picked up isn’t there, that you’re imagining it, or that they aren’t feeling it at all.

You and I know that emotional awareness tends to be low in many people, and that emotional honesty can feel threatening. Therefore, if you have someone in your life who swears that you’re an empathic failure, I want you to think about the many factors that can get in the way of your empathic skills:

  1. You could be right, but perhaps you phrased things in such a way that the person feels unmasked and unsafe for reasons that may have nothing to do with you.
  2. You could be projecting your own current emotional state onto the person, who doesn’t feel what you’re feeling right now.
  3. You could be projecting, yet it’s still true that the other person feels the emotion right now.
  4. You could feel your own intensity level of the emotion and mistakenly assume that the other person feels it in the way you do (with all of your baggage).
  5. You could be having a type of flashback to emotional behaviors in your family or your childhood — and you could be projecting those into this situation.
  6. The person could honestly be unaware that he or she is feeling the emotion.
  7. The person could be deeply ashamed of and dissociated from the emotion.
  8. The person could view emotions as signs of weakness or lack of control — and misidentify them or ignore them intentionally.
  9. The person could be trying to confuse you.
  10. The person could be lying.

In situations 1-5, your own difficulties with communication or emotional skills are getting in the way of clear empathizing. All of the practices in The Art of Empathy will help you address these difficulties. Empathy is a skill, and you can increase your empathic skills at any stage of your life.

For instance, the practice called Learning People Intentionally on pages 188-190 can help you develop better accuracy and sensitivity.

But in situations 6-10, the other person’s (lack of) skills and emotional awareness are where the problems lie. If this person is in your most intimate empathic zone, he or she can interfere with your empathic development, and you’ll need to have emotionally aware and emotionally honest people around you to make up for this difficulty.

Emotional and empathic skills are vital for healthy relationships, but some people simply can’t tolerate emotional closeness, self-awareness, or vulnerability. This is okay, as long as you have friends and family members who can provide you with the depth and connection you need to develop your emotional and empathic awareness.

When you do have skills, you’ll be in a better position to tolerate people who aren’t comfortable with empathy and closeness. For instance, the way I deal with people who don’t want to be seen and who don’t want to be in any kind of empathic communication is to become very clear about my own emotional landscape so that I’m not projecting or leaking, because being seen and being vulnerable can make some people feel truly awful.

Therefore, the most empathic response in that situation is to stop trying to be empathic. When someone sends you clear signals that empathy isn’t appreciated, then good empathy requires that you back away.

When I’m in the presence of emotionally unaware people who want to dampen my emotional awareness because it feels threatening or exposing to them, I rely upon the Empathic Mindfulness practices I teach. I immediately ground myself, set my boundaries, and create a threshold by breaking eye contact and moving away slowly, even imperceptibly — in the way you would in the presence of a distrustful animal.

I also keep up a strong inner dialogue so that I can maintain my standpoint and emotional awareness, no matter what kind of empathic silencing is going on around me.

In our everyday emotional training, we’ve all learned wildly backward and unhelpful things about emotions, and many people simply can’t face their emotions. That’s okay.

If these people want to move forward with you, you can share this book and let them know that you’re working to develop your empathy. You can use the empathically clumsy situations between you as examples that will help you explore and deepen your relationship. However, if these people state that they’re not interested in developing an empathic connection with you, you’ll have some very important information about who they are, what’s important to them, and how you’ll approach them in the future.

Some people will not want to get into sync with you, and that’s okay, as long as it’s clearly stated and clearly understood. A vital part of developing healthy empathy is understanding when empathy is — and is not — appropriate.

That’s a part of the art of empathy.

2 Responses

  1. Lauren
    | Reply

    Hi Karla – I’m glad I found this blog post as I’ve been wondering about this myself recently! I was seeing a counselor (I’ve been struggling on and off with an anxiety “disorder”) and she suggested I read your language of emotions book. I’ve always been labeled as “sensitive” so I can relate to a lot of what you talk about in your books, on this site and YouTube videos. I have an absolute ton of questions but I’ll start with the one I had recently: how do you believe we read emotions? What is it exactly that we pick up on? Is it a mixture of body language and facial expressions? Is it subconscious smells? Can you really empathize with somebody you don’t know? And anything you do pick up on is that more likely to be projection? I quite often don’t know whether to trust my own assessment of what I sense other people are feeling – but I have a good idea of where this comes from. Ok that’s quite a lot of questions! I’d love to attend your courses but I live really far away. It’s also difficult to get hold of your books – do you ever run any online question answer sessions?

    • Karla McLaren
      | Reply

      Hi Lauren — good points. The way to hone your empathy is to find people who will tell you if what you’re picking up is correct.

      Some of it is projection, in that I don’t think it’s possible to read an emotion or state you have never experienced. In fact, people read each other incorrectly all the time, because they attribute what they might be feeling instead of checking in with the other person’s experience.

      But projection isn’t bad. It’s one way we model the world.

      We don’t just read facial expressions, which are not actually very good clues to emotional states unless someone is very obvious. We read nuance, undercurrent, situations, context, relationships bodies, and our own concepts. That’s why I say that it’s helpful for empathic people to read and watch fiction and expand their emotional vocabulary and experiences so that there is more material to pick up on.

      There is an exercise in The Art of Empathy called Learning People Intentionally that helps people hone their empathy and reading ability with people who are not similar to them. It’s a way to calibrate, really. The book is available electronically here, if that’s an easier way to get it: Art of Empathy e-book

      Oh, and I answer questions on a weekly YouTube show called Emotionally Speaking. It’s here: Emotions Dynamics on YouTube
      Thanks for the good questions!

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