I’ve been wondering lately; can the birth chart tell us how empathetic someone is?
Collins Dictionary describes empathy as “the power of understanding and imaginatively entering into another person’s feelings.” In other words, it’s the ability to imagine yourself in someone else’s shoes, regardless of whether or not you have experienced what they are experiencing.
There are different kinds of empathy. Emotional empathy is how we commonly think of empathy, as per the dictionary definition above. There is also cognitive empathy, which is the ability to see things from someone else’s perspective without necessarily feeling their feelings. Then there’s compassionate empathy, which is when empathy is followed through with helpful action.
Emotional empathy is most easily associated with the Water element (Cancer, Scorpio and Pisces), because qualities associated with Water are emotional sensitivity and connection. However, when Water dominates a chart, it doesn’t necessarily guarantee empathetic responses to the feelings of others (I’ll explain in Part 2 why this might be). It’s also not the case that those with a lack of Water in their chart or with a dominance of Fire (Aries, Leo, Sagittarius), Earth (Taurus, Virgo, Capricorn) or Air (Gemini, Libra, Aquarius) don’t have as much capacity for empathy, although we might surmise that an Air type is likely to have more cognitive empathy than emotional, for example. However, I’m focusing on emotional empathy here and everyone, whatever the element balance in their chart, has feelings. It’s my experience that most people with any element emphasis or deficit in their chart are capable of this kind of empathy, but are also capable of showing a lack of empathy at times.
So, the question remains, can you determine empathy from the birth chart? I think not and nor, I believe, can you tell if someone lacks empathy from their chart. Lack of empathy/callousness is defined as one of the characteristics of psychopaths and I don’t believe you can spot one just from a chart, any more than you can spot an empath. But let’s assume, for the purposes of this essay, that most people are capable of some degree of empathy and look at the question from a different angle.
As I strolled, in a moment of universal synchronicity, something random happened that made me feel no empathy, followed by a distinct empathetic response just moments later.
Called out of my thinking head by shouting, my automatic conscious response was curiosity. What’s happening, where is this noise coming from? Meanwhile, unconsciously, my brain would have been trying to figure out if this posed any danger to me. So, no empathy here, just my natural, selfish, survival response with a measure of inquisitiveness. I discovered where the noise was coming from when a young woman ran yelling out of an open front door, swiftly followed by two police officers. As she crossed the road and started running directly towards me, the officers still in pursuit, again I felt no empathy. I only feared for my own safety, so moved out of the way pretty sharpish.
Once they’d passed me and I was safe, I again became curious about what was happening. The woman had been caught up by the police who were trying to restrain her. She was terribly upset; crying and begging them to let go of her. Now, witnessing her obvious distress, I felt upset and had the beginnings of tears in my eyes. I didn’t know the background of her situation, whether she’d hurt someone else or herself, or if she was having some sort of breakdown. Nevertheless, I had a fleeting emotional upset in response to this stranger’s anguish. In other words, I could empathise, despite the fact that I didn’t understand what was happening and that thankfully I’ve never myself been chased and restrained by the police. However, it was possible for me to imagine feeling so scared that I would need to run away from capture.
It would have been impossible for me to empathise when I felt I might be in danger in this uncertain situation. My automatic response was to defend myself, to make myself safe, nobody else mattered at that point. So, if it’s impossible to be empathetic when our defences are up (physical or emotional), we can explore how the defence mechanisms suggested by our birth chart, get in the way of, inhibit or delay our emotional empathy.
Where do we see our defences in our chart? A safe bet is that they are suggested by our aspects and aspect patterns. First, what do we mean by defences? Ego defence mechanisms “are psychological processes people use, in order to protect themselves against extreme discomfort and tension. They are also effective in maintaining mental composure and self-esteem in a variety of what might otherwise be very painful situations. Defence mechanisms operate at an unconscious level, and all of us use them occasionally. However, prolonged and persistent use of them is counter-productive, because such defences serve to distort reality and falsify experience.” (Hough, p85).
Square aspects between planets are an obvious candidate for showing potential defence mechanisms in the birth chart. This is because squares often impel us to act, but the tension of the Square means that that action might be the activation of a defence mechanism. Take, for example, Mercury Square Saturn. This aspect suggests a fear of not being clever enough or a fear of being wrong and usually this fear stems from early life experiences. Perhaps the child was ridiculed or punished when they made a mistake? Perhaps their defence was to give up trying and live with the ‘story’ that they are stupid. Or perhaps they arm themselves with the ‘belief’ that they are right about everything and everyone else is wrong. This might feel like a safe place to sit and in the short term it protects from the threat of further punishment or ridicule. But to be wrong, to make mistakes, to allow ourselves to fail is how we learn and ultimately how we succeed. If someone beats themselves up over failing a test (or even for failing to get top marks in a test), how are they able to show empathy to others who might be struggling on that test and could perhaps use a little support and encouragement? And the subtle message the Mercury-Saturn person gives to others is that they think anyone who gets lower marks than them really is stupid.
A lady with this aspect who, while bright, for socio-economic reasons, was unable to get the education they wanted. Their child, however (also with Mercury Square Saturn) was able to access higher education. Throughout their years at university, the mother constantly denigrated and ridiculed the child’s desire to get educated, telling them they were lazy and a failure for choosing to get a degree over going straight into a job, marriage and children. Because the mother unconsciously felt envious and threatened by their child’s education opportunities and defended themselves accordingly, there was no empathy for the path their child had taken. Unaware for many years that their mother’s response was a defensive one, born of disappointment from their own childhood, the child was also unable to empathise with their mother’s insecurities and ended up feeling like the failure their mother said they were, while at the same time, emotionally disengaging from the mother, thus confirming the mother’s fears that they would lose their child if they got educated.
This example, shows how, if we become aware of the issues of our challenging aspects, we can also become aware of our defences and ultimately understand what is behind them. When the child (as the well-educated adult they became) understood where their mother was coming from, they were able to forgive, rebuild the relationship, feel proud of their academic achievements and finally share them with the world without fear (or rather feel the fear and do it anyway - old habits die hard).
Part 2 coming soon... more examples of how defences in the birth chart can block empathy.
In the meantime, if you enjoyed this article... you might also enjoy Jupiter, Saturn and the Superego
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Reference: Hough, M. (2019) Counselling Skills and Theory. 4th Edition. UK: Hodder Education.