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Empathy Hurts. Empathy Heals.

“It all your fault,” my daughter sniveled as we shared an entire box of tissues. “I inherited this from you.” She was accusing me of endowing her with an overabundance of empathy as we watched the film adaptation of the young adult novel Wonder by R.J. Palacio. Auggie Pullman is a 5th grader who was born with a facial deformity. He’s a Star Wars geek. He hides under an astronaut helmet that is as publicly conspicuous as his face, but at least allows him some measure of safety from the stares and cruelty of others. The story heartbreakingly shows the complexity of being human, what it means to be different from the norm, and serves up the usual suspects of friend and foe on the cusp of coming of age. The story also evokes—for  anyone with a beating heart—the essentiality of love, belonging, and the healing energy of kindness.

By midnight my daughter and I were surrounded by a sea of twisted white tissue and debris. The film obviously worked the story’s magic for both of us and served as an emotional release. It was another tumultuous week of emotional highs (teens rising) and emotional lows (a federal proposal to arm teachers with concealed weapons)—at least for us.

Here’s the thing: Empathy hurts. We feel sadness or anger or pain when another person feels sadness or anger or pain. That’s emotional empathy. These feelings can lead to empathic distress. We can also mirror uplifting emotions like joy, care, pride, love, and compassion for another’s suffering. This can lead to empathic concern. As such, empathy can tie us together in ways that illuminate our deep connection. Similarly, we can imagine the feelings of another person without necessarily being caught up in heightened emotional states. That’s cognitive empathy. Evoking the imagination is what allows us to be moved by real and fictional stories, too. That’s why reading novels helps promote empathy. We can picture ourselves in the shoes of another person and taking on roles.

But empathy is tricky. We need a good balance of both the emotional and cognitive elements to ignite motivational empathy, or the kind of empathy that allows us to reflect on our reactions without being flooded by difficult emotions. This takes some emotional muscle. There is an art and skill to rumbling with empathy that allows us to calm ourselves and, if and when possible, choose compassionate action. I describe this in detail in my book, The Kindness Cure.

So if you are feeling upset or distressed by recent events, that’s totally understandable. The experience of empathic distress maps to neural networks in the brain similar to that of physical pain. It hurts. I’d be concerned if you weren’t (on some level) moved by yet another school shooting or by any suffering for that matter, even if how you and I decide to respond is different.

The sobering truth is that my daughter and I could finish watching Wonder with relative feelings of safety. We could tuck ourselves in and imagine how we’d stand up to those mean 7th graders that roughed up Auggie. We can also decide what, if anything, we want to do about current events. In this way we are privileged, blessed, lucky—or all of the above. We have freedom to choose a course of action. Of course, that privilege can change at any moment. That’s why it is so important to be present to the unfolding of life and to recognize our inherent responsibility in caring for one another—in spite of differences in how we look, where we come from, or in what we believe—because we can.  Empathy also can heal us.

Maybe that’s why the rising voices of young people is so refreshing: they are unapologetic, demanding, and focused on putting compassion in action. They care about the basic needs of children to feel safe and loved. They’re putting up a fight. They’re demanding respect.  They feel empowered. And they are demonstrating a universally understood imperative of the Golden Rule. There’s a quote in my book from a spiritual master that’s worth repeating here:

True kindness does not have an agenda or ulterior motive; it is an instinctual response that can feel highly energized and even fierce. Yes, kindness can be fierce. Chögyam Trungpa, a Tibetan Buddhist teacher, goes so far as to say that a compassionate mind is a warrior’s mind. ‘To understand our self-nature, as well as the self-nature of humanity, we should focus on what has beauty and dignity among humankind. Doing so will rid you of a fearful mind, and change it into a spiritual warrior’s mind.’ To overcome your fears of living in a world where painful things happen, expand your compassionate nature. Because it is innate. Know that what you do matters to others, so be caring and careful about your actions. Be a kindness warrior.

The challenge today is that we have an overexposure to negativity and underexposure to the goodwill in the world. Our attention is constantly diverted away from ordinary moments of kindness. We forget that there is so much we can appreciate and love. Let’s try looking a little closer.  We might just see the beauty and dignity among humankind. And that’s worth fighting for.


  • Coming in March is Palacio’s newest work, a picture book for younger children called We’re All Wonders. It introduces Auggie and the themes of kindness, empathy and tolerance.
  • The book Wonder inspired the Choose Kind Campaign and there is also an app for that! It’s called Daily Wonder. 
  • To be human is to be kind—at all stages and ages—including creating caring cultures at work. Join in the conversation in an upcoming webinar for the workplace hosted by Whil.com:  The Kindness Cure: A Prescription for Engaged and Successful Workplaces.  Tell your colleagues and co-workers. You can register here:

Photo by Marco Bianchetti on Unsplash

Illustration of Auggie: Wonder by R.J. Palacio

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