Empathy vs. Objectivity
Empathy and objectivity seem to be incredibly different at first glance. Empathy is all about your mirror neuron systems doing their jobs in the insula region of the brain, causing you to have experiences internally that match what you are viewing or hearing externally. You feel sadness take you over when watching someone experiencing deep grief and loss. You wince in reaction to seeing someone else being kicked in the head. When you see someone grasp a glass off a table, you can somehow “tell” whether they’re going to drink it or they’re clearing the table. These are the basic building blocks of empathy. The more developed and complex our mirror neuron systems are, the more empathic we are.
Objectivity seems to be the opposite of empathy. It’s a place where you don’t connect to the person having the experience, you merely observe it. You don’t “feel” their feelings, you observe them. This is most often associated with the "Brain Triad" typologies, although it can easily be a learned trait or survival strategy. The lack of reaction could be interpreted by others as cold or detached, there is a way that this objectivity can be an important part of compassion. Just as empathy can incite compassion for someone having an experience you can “feel,” objectivity can incite compassion for someone having an experience you can’t possibly understand. Rather than coming from our own feelings, we can recognize someone else having their own experience; one that we may not be able to relate to or feel ourselves.
The place where these very different approaches intersect in compassion is in their shared “detachment from judgment.” When we put ourselves in the position of the other person having an experience, we can bring a lot of baggage with us. This is where we run into problems, especially in communication. The worst thing we can do (and we tend to do this quite unconsciously) is to introduce “logic and reason” in the form of huge assumptions. The most common way we do this is the little phrase: “if it were me saying or doing that, it would mean ___________.” It isn’t us, and we’re almost always wrong. This is not using our mirror neurons to “feel” what the other person is feeling. This is using false objectivity, or straight detachment. We observe, then we create a rationale to explain the observation. This detachment is very problematic, as there is no real connection to what's happening outside of the observer.
The only detachment that works in our messy world, is detachment from judgment. This is where we don’t make evaluated assessments of another person’s experience. Making those judgments is usually us using our brain to protect ourselves from our heart, because we’re afraid of those feelings we don’t understand crashing over us like a tidal wave. We physically (or emotionally) push back in our chairs and say, “they shouldn’t feel that,” or make a crack like, “what kind of a wimp tears up watching a commercial?!” Without that judgment, we can be objective, and allow for the person to have the experience they’re having. Allowing them to have their experience without having to defend themselves is a perfectly valid form of compassion that requires no empathy or mirror neurons. This is the compassion that even someone with autism or Asperger’s Syndrome can offer. Just making that space.
The Law of Allowance
The “Law of Allowance” is using empathy and objectivity to allow the other person to be who they are. This sounds deceptively easy and obvious, but it is one of the most powerful practices my clients learn. We have many reasons for why we don’t simply do this naturally. We want people to be a certain way. We want them to be like us, or predictable, or be what we’ve projected them to be, or simply to make “sense” to us the way we see things. To just let them be whoever they really are could be devastating to the story we’ve been telling ourselves; the story that has supplanted reality. The story that we have built our play around.
Using our natural abilities to “feel” each other, we can let our judging, evaluating, discerning brains work on something else; something logical, rational, linear, and suited to the job of the brain. We can “feel” someone not understanding a procedure, and adjust our description, rather than becoming annoyed at them for not getting it. We can “feel” the effect we’re having on someone, and rather than using our detached, protective brain to assess what’s “wrong with them,” we can check in and learn something real. We can make all the micro-adjustments in our interactions that replicate the micro-adjustments of equilibrium, and achieve that same kind of balance.
Our communication, when raised to this level of consciousness, connects us the way we are naturally designed to be connected. We are social animals, with the most sophisticated mirror neuron systems of any animals on the planet. Feeling each other is part of knowing each other. We can communicate with other socialized animals who’ve learned to “read” us for their own survival. If our dogs and cats can feel our sadness, and provide the compassion we need, we certainly should be able to do as well for each other. At the very least, we can give each other the space to feel our own feelings, and think our own thoughts, without the pressure to defend them.