Positive psychology

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Empathy

“No one cares how much you know unless they know how much you care.”

This statement, often attributed to President Theodore Roosevelt, was paraphrased by a candidate as he delivered his closing remarks at the Primary debates last week. The assertion was that the Party had become a West/East Coast Elitist Party and needed to return to caring about and connecting with the forgotten Midwest and our issues.

Knowing is different from caring. It involves the awareness or understanding of facts, information or skills learned through education or experience. While knowing is often a prerequisite to caring, it is not enough to have all the facts, and all of the plans to put practices in place, if caring is not the impetus for those procedures.

Caring involves placing ourselves in another’s shoes. Being empathic, that is to show empathy, is to connect on a variety of levels with another human being or group, to feel the emotions that they are feeling, to understand another’s perspective, and have the desire to help them, thus blurring the lines between self and others.

Empathy is probably one of the most important skills one could learn to be successful in understanding others’ decision-making, winning at negotiations, and building teamwork in a number of contexts including politics, business, schools, homes and families.

Psychologists believe that empathy is important if for no other reason than it teaches both sides that everything is not just about them. Empathy diminishes the us vs. them mindset.

People who are empathic have a more positive view of humanity. Acting in a caring way can reduce many kinds of intolerance—for example, racism, sexism, and feelings of bigotry.

Most of us are capable of empathy—some more than others. There are gender and age differences with women tending to be somewhat more caring than men, and some individuals becoming more or less empathic as they age. But, empathy can be cultivated in most people regardless of gender or age.

When we’re suffering and in pain, we expect that those who care about us will consider our needs and respond and comfort us. However, there may be instances when someone does not demonstrate the expected degree of empathy. Naturally, we feel hurt and may make assumptions about the character of the individual. They’re cold, heartless, even cruel. We have opened ourselves up, exposing our vulnerability, and they have not responded the way we had expected.

The lack of what we have defined as an appropriate empathic response can be associated with any number of circumstances. The non-responders may not have been taught to demonstrate empathy by their parents. There may be a mutual dislike between individuals or groups. A lack of understanding or trust could have developed or hidden resentment occurred because of unresolved issues. They may have psychological problems.

Often, we have no idea what another person is going through, what burdens they are carrying. Even trusted individuals may not provide an empathic response if in dealing with their own issues, they are overwhelmed and at a breaking point.

There are those such as medical personnel working in high-stress situations who are dealing with patients with serious illnesses. Sometimes, even if they appear to be cold and heartless, they must emotionally shut down to preserve their own sanity.

There are also those who would rather cause pain than provide comfort—individuals with serious psychological disorders. Some examples described in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) that are closely related to a lack of empathy are:

1. antisocial personality disorder—individuals who are cynical and contemptuous of the feelings, rights and suffering of others.

2. narcissistic personality disorder—self-centered people who cannot see beyond their own needs, seeking excessive admiration and attention; described as arrogant, manipulative and demanding.

3. borderline personality disorder—individuals with emotional instability of mood, interpersonal relationships, self-image and behavior, unable
to understand how others are feeling.

4. schizoid personality disorder—individuals who are detached from social relationships and have a restricted range of the expression of emotions.

These individuals are unable or unwilling to care about others. They lack sensitivity and compassion. They are manipulative, selfish, and think about their own welfare first and foremost.

In recent years we have seen too little evidence of empathy—in personal relationships, business, education, and politics. What we need are strong, supportive caring families. What we need to solve our current problems—inequality, gun violence, climate change, foreign threats, etc.  is for trusted individuals and leaders to promote connection vs. divisiveness, and convey to all Americans that their voices are heard and understood, that their concerns are legitimate, and that working together will enable us to solve this nation’s problems.

The lesson from Roosevelt is clear. Let people know that they have not been forgotten. Connection matters. We have to learn to listen, to place ourselves in another’s shoes, and shift our mindset to think about others, not just ourselves. Selfishness has no place in an empathic relationship, whether between individuals, groups, or nations. Conveying empathy is how we connect with other humans, how we become successful, and how we win negotiations.

Contact Dr. Thompson at caroltmcc@comcast.net

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