Day 435: About Empathy
Lately, I’ve been wondering if there’s harm in being too empathetic.
The straightforward answer here is probably yes. My admittedly shallow understanding of personality disorders is that while some people experience a debilitating lack of empathy, others can have such emotional hypersensitivity that they’re overwhelmed to the point of inaction.
So – as a defining characteristic of disorders (or things we consider socially unacceptable), excessive absence or presence of empathy seems real, and harmful.
But even if we (the cultural we… you know, “We”) think about empathy within a normal or accepted range, we still run into trouble with it. In general, we consider empathy an altruistic and necessary attribute – its definition is intimately tied to kindness, compassion, patience and a host of other virtuous qualities. But when we overuse it, do we cause more damage than good?
Recently, a writer for xojane.com wrote a story about her experience in a yoga class, and it revolved wholly around her effort to embody another person’s experience. While I believe her article was written from a place of compassion, it comes across as presumptuous and pretentious. As a slim white woman, the writer imagines that the experience of a new “heavyset” black student is negative and alienating – and she becomes obsessively upset with the thought.
The Internet reaction to this article was fairly negative and critical – in some cases, productively so, but in others, just plain mean. (I’m purposefully not linking to it, because the initial content and resulting discussion is easily found elsewhere. The point of this post is not to stir that pot, although I think it’s a terribly interesting stew.)
My own reaction to the story was twofold. For one thing, yoga is a personal experience. It’s designed to help individual people quiet their own minds and bodies, which means not paying attention to another person’s private journey. True yoga practice doesn’t happen when you’re wrapped up imagining someone else’s experience.
Secondly, the article reads as empathetic to a fault. In trying so hard to put herself in another woman’s shoes – and then publicly posting about it – the writer made her own point of view more important than the other woman’s actual perspective. Somehow, empathy turned into self-involvement.
It’s a conundrum.
To offer one more example, I had a conversation with a friend the other day about gay marriage rights. From our shared everyone-should-be-able-to-get-married point of view, we determined that those on the other side of the issue suffer from an inability to remove empathy from the equation. It seems reasonable to assume that a straight conservative male may not be able to empathize with a gay male. Thinking about two men having sex is probably more than uncomfortable (See how I just tried to appropriately empathize there? Can o’ worms, baby.).
So the question then becomes, if we can’t empathize with another person’s actions, does it mean what they’re doing is wrong?
I obviously don’t think so, which means that maybe we’re placing too much emphasis – and moral value – on empathy. We should be capable of being compassionate and fair without being empathetic.
To close the longest blog post I think I’ve ever written, this topic confuses me in a really delightful way. If you’re also stimulated and muddled by our emotional capacity to understand other people, I’m very interested in hearing your thoughts. Please feel free to share.
Empathy certainly is a can of worms! I’m going to respond philosophically: With questions 😀
“…if we can’t empathize with another person’s actions, does it mean what they’re doing is wrong?”
If I can’t empathise with a person who has a cognitive or mental impairment, does that mean their behaviours that raise my eyebrows are “wrong”?
If readers respond “yes” to the above, what if I then went on to experience some kind of personal trauma that enabled me to empathise more closely with the above individual/s – can my assessment of their behaviour change from “wrong” to “acceptable”?
If “yes”, does this mean there can be no such thing as an objective “acceptable” or “wrong”?
If “yes”, does this justify every behaviour that can occur in the world?
Oh, I love this comment. And I’ll add more questions! 🙂
Is there an objective “acceptable” or “wrong?” These concepts seem to be defined socially and culturally, which make them inherently subjective (meaning I’d say “yes” to your second to last question).
As a base example, if we look at the progression of women in positions of power (in corporate America, in particular), women’s current behaviors would have been viewed as unacceptable 100 years ago. So if the terms are flexible and subject to context, I’d make the argument that they apply to mental acuity as well. Many of our favorite historical creative geniuses would be considered mentally ill by today’s standards.
Getting at your last question, that’s not to say mental illness isn’t real, because it very much is and deserves our time and attention. And there are certainly harmful behaviors – such as violence towards oneself or others – that we may understand and identify with (depending on our own experiences), but does that make them acceptable? To rephrase, is a justified behavior an acceptable behavior, or do the two concepts operate independently?
Making the leap that that a justified behavior implies that we understand and empathize with it, I think we could remove empathy as a way to judge right and wrong.
The overall point of my comment wasn’t necessarily geared toward mental acuity; it was just a handy example 🙂 But I think it, along with your corporate America parallel, illustrates some important things: It seems as though we’re in agreement regarding the subjectivity and context-dependency of terms.
“… is a justified behaviour an acceptable behaviour, or do the two concepts operate independently?” Doesn’t this depend upon who’s doing the justifying and who’s deeming acceptability?
I’ll assume a leap has been made into “the person not engaging in X behaviour” determining both justifying and deeming acceptability. Below, I’ll illustrate the complexities that arise from this leap alone, though – never mind the minefield I’d be illustrating had I not made the leap!
That is, I can justify why a woman is actively rising to corporate power (for eg), and (therefore) find it acceptable.
More to your point though, I can justify why a woman is actively rising to corporate power (the money is good, power feels nice, she wants the same privileges a man is given), but I do not find it acceptable (women belong in the kitchen, etc).
Conversely, I can’t justify why a woman is actively rising to corporate power (how dare she? why would she want to? how selfish, given that she has/wants kids, etc), but I find it acceptable (that is, I can accept that this woman does things that I deem “wrong”).
I think the answer to your question in the second last paragraph is more tiered than you’ve given it credit for 😉
“I think we could remove empathy as a way to judge right and wrong.” You mention compassion and fairness in your initial blog post. Does compassion not necessarily implicate empathy? Even if I cannot understand why a person would act in a certain way, doesn’t my compassion imply that I am empathetic of their humanness?
Hah – I’m smiling as I’m reading this, because I love how complex it is! Thank you for opening up the intricacies – the “wrongness” equation is a slippery one. Following your examples, it involves some kind of mixture of independent concepts (justification, acceptability, etc.) that makes it hard to standardize.
Regarding the last comment you made, it reminds me of Claire’s comment below. Maybe making the separation between emotional empathy and intellectual understanding can allow us to be compassionate without wrapping in our own emotions and experiences.
I think the key is to draw the line between empathy and understanding. It’s a characteristic of empathy that we feel what the object of our empathy is feeling, and that’s just not something that always is, or should be, possible. But we can easily understand where someone else is coming from – or what they’re feeling – without empathizing with it. Arguably, it’s more useful, and less presumptuous, for us to understand than it is for us to empathize. In the yoga class case, for example, which I have also read, if the woman in question had chosen to understand, rather than empathize, she may have found herself in an easier position – and one that allowed her to take action, rather than being paralyzed by borrowed emotion.
It’s a reaction that, to me, should be at the heart of almost every action in our society, especially those that revolve around judgment. Empathy clouds understanding and the ability to act because it, by definition, involves emotion. But if we can stand aside and understand, we can also detach ourselves enough to move forward in a productive way. Obviously, it depends on the situation, but I think it’s often a more useful response than the emotional entanglement of empathy.
Ah! Distinguishing between empathy and understanding is an excellent exercise. Particularly regarding emotional detachment, which – as you’ve pointed out – is not a bad thing. It allows us to be compassionate without becoming self-involved.
regarding the distinction between empathy and understanding, this is starting to happen by way of identifying and differentiating “affective empathy” from “cognitive empathy.”
rather than empathy being inherently emotional, it can exist on different dimensions. it’s an important distinction because of the implications that come from someone “lacking empathy” – which would technically place both autistics and sociopaths in the same group. in reality, the sociopath lacks affective empathy but can be quite gifted at cognitive empathy. and as we’re starting to understand, autistics may lack cognitive empathy but may feel affective empathy to the point of it being functionally overwhelming.
while i can see how emotions can cloud rational judgment, my preference currently is to channel both types of empathy and consider them from a mindful perspective before reacting. emotion is just more information. unfortunately it’s become confused as an imperative and “detaching” from them becomes confused with “divorcing” from them, causing a whole other set of problems.
when considering the actions of others, there’s a distinction to be made between description v. evaluation. the actions of another person who i may not exactly empathize with (cognitively and/or affectively) can be seen as different (description) without being wrong (evaluation). right or wrong seem to result more from the social context within which people are operating at the time. i’d like to think there are some basic behaviors we could agree are wrong, like killing or enslaving others, but history proves me wrong there.
Oh, what fabulous distinctions. The more I think about it, the more I find “wrong” a really hard term to qualify. If we make the leap that there are universally wrong behaviors, are they still as wrong if we can empathize with the reasoning or cause behind them? In keeping with that, I found this Radiolab episode about Blame really interesting. You might like it.
There’s a lot to think about here Ashleigh, thanks for sharing your perspective and wonder. Though I can imagine cracking open a bottomless pool for theoretical immersions and expunging, I have always felt as though empathy has stretched or flaked from the root of its Greek touch–the passion and the feeling. To be more concise, I think that we cannot ask people to empathize. It’s almost entirely subjective. We can ask others to sympathize more easily, but we tend to empathize with the events/people/”things” that we’re immediately passionate about or whose particles invoke our passion(s). Thus it would be impossible to find the grounds from which we can talk about something we cannot empathize with being wrong. It might not be “right for that person” but then again it’s feeling. To your point(s) about how much emphasis we put on empathy I think too much is right. But I think this mostly because we’ve allowed for empathy to be a commodity. Things as simple as making a donation are requests for empathy to be enacted as an objective representative of a larger objectivity–if I participate in this act my empathy is made known and thus shared with an empathetically grounded cause, so on. So we turn and turn and then return to how it is we make of what we’re made of, right as others are making us into a larger voice. These things are now on my mind and I will come back when I find more clarity or clarify where all things related can be found. Thanks for the insight. Tyler