Mind Matters — Empathy

We've been hearing a lot in the news about the danger of having empathy these days, but not much about what it means if you don't have it. Well, folks, according to the DSM IV, the diagnostic and statistical manual used by psychiatrists, psychologists, and other mental health professionals, one of the characteristics of a narcissistic personality disorder is “lack of empathy.”

If we are fortunate enough to have been adequately and appropriately nurtured as infants and children, we hopefully develop into empathic human beings. In fact, it is the empathy itself that defines our maturation.

Empathy is that quality that allows us to put ourselves in another person’s shoes, even when they don't fit our feet. In other words, empathy helps us to understand another. Consider the image of under-stand: you are not above the other, but standing under, “carrying” the perception, thought, emotions of the other; and you are not disengaged from them. It is a shift of focus to empathize.

This shift of focus removes us from the self-absorption that goes beyond healthy narcissism. (Yes, there is a certain amount of self-absorption we need for self-care.) Empathy gives us the ability to bracket for a while our own opinions and perspectives, and see an issue from another’s place. We begin “to get” what it is like for the other person.

Empathy is not sympathy. Sympathy can arise out of a place of pity, a place of separation from where the other stands. It is not an understanding so much as a place of distance, “I’m glad that’s not me.” Empathy is not lily livered liberalism. It is the essence of being human in its highest sense. When we empathize, we care for another out of a deep respect (“Re-spect” implies to “look again.”) for the other’s own personhood. Examples abound. When our child is in a certain mood and we are able to empathize, we consider that the behavior is not to be “taken personally.” If the child feels understood, often the situation resolves itself because we, as parents, responded empathically instead of reacting impulsively.

And when spouses can empathically listen to each other, bracketing their own points of view for a time to let the other speak, a shift in an argument can occur.

At every level of human relationship—from the individual to the Globe—empathy is a necessary ingredient to sound communication. Without empathy, communication devolves into manipulative strategy.

So perhaps it is empathy then that becomes the champion of “objectivity” since, without it we may become subjective narcissists sipping sherry and smoking cigars in our own solipsistic universe.