Expressing empathy feels particularly hard right now!

“In order to empathize with your experience, I must be willing to believe you as you see your experience and not how I imagine your experience to be.” Brené Brown

All my survival instincts are on high alert and every possible transgression, thoughtless action or selfish choice kicks me into a level of outrage that is scaring me. To be clear, my perspective is that people are transgressing thoughtlessly and selfishly. And my fear is fanning the flames of judgment and righteousness. The more my lizard brain detects danger, the more I dig in on my survival. Expressing empathy feels particularly hard right now.

What’s really happening: The alarm system is armed-my brain tells the adrenal glands to produce cortisol to manage my fight or flight response in the situation. Too much cortisol in the system contributes to anxiety and depression among other health risks.

Life gives innumerable opportunities for us to learn to adapt to intolerable, challenging, or painful experiences. From the moment we come into the world we are designed to ask for what we need in a language that must be deciphered by those hearing us. If only we had the words to say hold me, feed me, change me, entertain me. But we do not, thus we learn to ask using trial and error. This process of learning intimately involves both the child and the parent. What I learn from my child may not be what his father learns. But my ability to stay and figure out how to meet the expressed need is a gift to the parent-child relationship.

What’s really happening: Children and parents are learning from each other in every interaction. Developmentally, the infant is striving towards attachment as a survival mechanism, while the parent is bringing a lifetime of unconscious attachment knowledge to the relationship. They each feed off the other looking for solutions that keep the connection intact while calming their inner state as quickly as possible.   

Crossing into the world of my child or my partner to see things from his perspective is a Herculean task, especially when I am exhausted, worn down, triggered, or simply out of sorts. When I muster my ability to calm my nervous system, remembering that this person is someone I dearly love, and believing there will be a chance for me to be heard as well, difficult hurdles can be overcome. My fear injects doubt; the old stories I tell myself seem to be factual. My feelings arrive without invitation and my impulse is to hunker down and retreat.

What’s really happening: My brain is searching for danger and acting to self-protect using cortisol and adrenalin to get my body to respond. These stress hormones need to be discharged in some way or another, f not they become trapped in the body and feed a cycle of negative mental and physical outcomes.  

In our earliest developmental years, we adapt to the responses we get when we cry out. Our adaptations are often brilliantly designed to be uniquely suited to the person we are becoming in the family that is emerging. My need is not distinctive, but my way of resolving my fears or tolerating my anxiety are mine and mine alone. I become so well practiced at this—we get good at the things we do—that I carry these adaptive ways into my adult life, thinking how clever I am to have ways to care for myself. In fact, what I developed were ways to protect myself from feelings that were intolerable. Almost anything is preferable to feeling anxious. And my anxiety sits right next to my fear; they go walking hand in hand through my activated brain!

What’s really happening: Healthy brain integration goes off-line, and then reason and logic are harder to access, social engagement becomes threatening, survival hormones are coursing through the bloodstream.

In the world we all know today, circumstances have worn down our reserves of civility, cooperation, and collaboration. Without these, family, friends, and lovers unexpectedly become foes. My constant state of alertness is wearing thin and my reactive response is to defend and protect at all costs. If I am protecting myself, I am unable to connect to you. This is a fundamental reality. My guarded self, the me that only shows up part way, the self that holds back, withdraws, shuts down, or ignores bad things is never connecting with the people I hold most dear.

What’s really happening: Self-protection is an unconscious and historical response to stress. Our body chemistry is attempting to prevent potential danger from harming us.

Vulnerability is the only real path to connection. Creating safety for vulnerability happens when I know that I will be heard and that you desire to understand me, whether you agree with me or like what I have to say. Your ability to validate me and tell me what you understand about me in your heart is the experience of being seen, heard, and known that equates to feeling loved.

What’s really happening: validation and empathy trigger the production of “happy hormones,” which help to restore calm in the parasympathetic nervous system, also known as the rest and digest system.

Crossing the bridge that joins us, standing in my world, knowing my history, my past hurts and present wounds, and making the effort to see things as I see them, this is the truly healing expression of empathy for which we all deeply yearn. Your empathy is an indication that you know me well enough to truly get what it is like to be me in this situation, or that you are willing to learn about me so that you can truly know me. In the days of COVID, being known is almost unimaginable; our world has been upended. People we relied on to behave in this way or that have changed their course. Things that were taken for granted are no longer beacons of light in the unpredictable sea.

What’s really happening: The fear of uncertainty has profound effects on human decision-making. Generally, uncertainty is inextricably coupled with negative emotions. Negative emotions feed chronic stress, producing cortisol and adrenaline, and leading to unhealthy mental and physical outcomes.

What recourse do we have in these times? How best can we turn towards each other when we are scared? What will get us to lean into our relationships when we feel anxious? The conscious intentionality of talking, listening, and making sense of things is the first step in creating small islands of certainty and safety. Using Imago Dialogue, I can calm my reactivity, acknowledge the story I tell myself, sit with my feelings, explore my impulse to act, and unearth my deep desire beneath all of the distraction of the old dance we do together. When I can do this, it is masterful! More often, I need to walk away when I am activated. In hindsight, I might be able to reflect on what was happening, notice that I was activated and then look at what was really going on with me.

What’s really happening: By slowing down my reaction, I give the parasympathetic nervous system a chance to reset. It only takes the smallest opening for either person to reset, thereby inviting the other person to co-regulate to the calm.

Maintaining the tentative, precarious connection we have re-established requires tenderness and intention. I long for you to silently hold me with acceptance and sweetness. I lean into you matching your breath and heartbeat to mine. At my best I slow down so that we can get more quickly to the thing we want most. Touch of this sort helps to regulate the stress and survival hormones that are coursing through our bodies. A calm nervous system allows us to activate happiness hormones such as dopamine, oxytocin, endorphins, and serotonin.

  • Dopamine is associated with pleasure, reward, and achievement. Cultivating positive thoughts, sharing appreciations with your partner, and envisioning the future in affirmative aspirational ways help the body to produce dopamine.
  • Oxytocin is the love hormone that nature provides so that we will partner up! Giving or receiving tender touch, gentle massage, and silent hugs as your daily practice will increase the oxytocin in your system.
  • Endorphins are nature’s way of blocking pain. The body will manufacture endorphins when you exercise and raise your heart rate. Even five minutes of increase in your heart rate can reset the parasympathetic nervous system. Jumping jacks for five minutes every few hours is one way to achieve this.
  • Serotonin is a mood booster that makes us more sociable. The body produces serotonin when we walk in the sun, play with a pet, or have a belly laugh. Activating our natural hormones is critical in times of stress or conflict.

It is almost impossible to tap into our ability to empathize if we are ourselves out of sorts, anxious, reactive, overwhelmed, or simply exhausted. Using dialogue and other Imago tools we can begin to regulate the anxiety and discomfort we feel. If you find your relationship to be challenging or painful, know that these are challenging and painful times. Consider speaking with a professional, join a couples group, attend a virtual relationship workshop, and slow down so that you can tolerate the emotional chemistry of uncertainty and fear and find your way back to each other.

Learn more about how to communicate so that you are heard, how to listen so that you understand and how to be in relationship so that you feel connected. The Imago Center offers a variety of services and events to grow communication and connection skills in individuals and partners.

Check out events here.

Workshops for individuals.

Workshops for Couples

Getting the Love You Want Workshop May 15-16

Keeping the Love You Find workshop Aug 28-29


  • when you are stressed your body produces cortisol and adrenaline which are challenging to mental and physical well-being
  • “happy” hormones can counteract the negative impact of stress hormones
  • emotions are not facts AND they are real; don’t ignore them
  • positive gestures towards your loved ones will help you to connect and tolerate challenging emotions
  • uncertainty sucks!