It's true that for a long time, while I could say the appropriate thing, I could not relate to their struggles. Still, I took satisfaction in the fact that my relationships were improving. Then a year after starting therapy, I began feeling something intensely when comforting friends: terror.

This turned out to be a signal, Lachmann says, that I was actually feeling empathy. I didn't recognize it because I'd always run from emotional discomfort—and, at least in the beginning, I found trying to be empathetic profoundly uncomfortable. Most of the time I managed to avoid the impulse to blurt out unhelpful suggestions to my friends—Happy hour, anyone? Or, Here's the number for a credit consolidator!—and instead say the appropriate thing. But for years and years, I could stand genuine empathy only five minutes at a time.

For those five minutes, though, I was not alone. And once I had experienced the wonder of that, I was willing to stumble out of my comfort zone to try to be not alone again.

Virtually everything I have ever tried to improve about myself—my weight, my sleep habits, my housecleaning—has resulted in an endless seesaw of improvement. But empathy, I've learned, is not like dieting. (Or, at least, how I diet, which involves ending up back at square one.) Cultivating empathy has its own rewards: The more you do it, the better your relationships are and the more you want to continue.