Should We Be Against Empathy?
They say it doesn't work. Maybe it's just hard.
Recently some conservative Christians have come out against empathy. But I’ve also seen it on the progressive Left, that because empathy hasn’t solved racism or misogyny, we shouldn’t bother with it anymore. Both the political Right and Left will point to Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion (I haven’t read the book, but I follow the author here on substack).
It seems both sides have opted instead for public shaming, canceling, preaching to the choir, and legislative heavy-handedness.
But these are just rationalizations about empathy “not working”. In reality, it is because empathy is hard.
Because empathy is hard work,
either reject it outright;
or water it down to bland “acceptance”.
Empathy isn’t everything. But it’s the beginning of most things.
So let’s dive into this a little bit. I’ll try and not make this too long (read time looks like 4 minutes last I checked).
Empathy is a Capacity (which we seem to be losing as a society)
Definition of empathy: “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another” (from some online dictionary).
Empathy is the ability to feel the distress of another as if it were your own distress, which then motivates you to do something to relieve the other person’s distress.
The first step toward this learned capacity (not an innate personality trait of some but not others)
is regular attuned emotional interactions with someone who is bigger, stronger, and wiser,
who helps you learn to self-regulate your emotions.
The second step is to take this skill of attunement that you received and offer it to another.
Amazingly, we see this in children as early as 18 months, who hear another crying baby and will offer a toy or blanket to help soothe them (see chapter 8 on “prosociality” of Becoming Human).
Schore says that “other-oriented empathy” is “the ability to understand both self and others, and the ability to tolerate, consciously experience, and not bypass” distressful emotional states.
Or said differently,
Other-oriented empathy reguires the capacities of taking another’s perspective, reading the other’s internal emotional experiences, and being capable of experienceing a range of emotional states. (Affect Regulation and the Origin of the Self, 351).
What Schore doesn’t say is that we must be able to do all this
without becoming emotionally dysregulated ourselves,
without offering autobiographical projections,
without defensive rationalizations, cliche solutions, or bypassing.
And the truth is, that many who want to offer empathy, to be allies, to stand with the traumatized, are doing so from their own triggered nervous systems that are in protection mode (even while wanting to be in connection), and this spreads and amplifies the dysregulation (which can look like a lot of manic activity until everyone runs out of gas).
SUMMARY: Empathy is not a personality trait you do or don’t have. It is a learned capacity that helps you be a protector instead of a predator.
Empathy is Not
So, back to the dismissals of empathy.
Empathy is not merely affirming or amplifying dysregulated distress (see this from Chuck DeGroat)
Empathy offers emotional resources that lead from protection to connection.
Empathy is not perpetuating a protective state nervous system (fight, flight, freeze, fawn of the sympathetic activation).
Empathy is a connective nervous system (emotionally regulated) helping another move from protection to connection.
Empathy is not affirmation, acceptance, validation or celebration of how another people feels in the moment or about a situation.
Empathy is acknowledging and understanding how they feel and openness toward them in their state and as they move forward.
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Empathy is Hard
So, having the capacity to onboard the distress of others—really feeling it—without it leading to your own dysregulation and disorganized behavior is really hard.
The hard work of empathy requires that we practice
enlarging our window of tolerance in which our emotional regulation exists (allowing us to be optimally flexible to the situation while remaining integrated within our selves)
and learn the rhythms of rupture and repair within relationships (we should do a podcast episode on this, but until then there is this book: The Power of Discord: why the ups and downs of relationships are the secret to building intimacy, resilience, and trust).