Empathy: Could It Be What You’re Missing?

by Douglas LaBier

Special to The Washington Post

December 25, 2007

The above link is to a shorter version of this article that I published on Christmas Day, 2007. I have since expanded and revised it, below:

You may not realize it, but a great number of people suffer from EDD. No, you’re not reading a misprint of ADD or ED. The acronym stands for “Empathy Deficit Disorder.”

Nor will you find it listed in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, even though that tome has been expanding as normal variations of mood and temperament have increasingly been defined as disorders. I’m hesitant to suggest adding another one. But this one’s real.

Based on my 35 years of experience as a business psychologist, psychotherapist and researcher, I have come to believe that EDD is a pervasive but overlooked condition with profound consequences for the mental health of individuals and of our society.

People who suffer from EDD are unable to step outside themselves and tune in to what other people experience. especially those who feel, think and believe differently from yourself. That makes it a source of personal conflicts, of communication failure in intimate relationships, and of the adversarial attitudes — even hatred — among groups of people who differ in their beliefs, traditions or ways of life.

Take the man who reported to me that his wife was complaining that he didn’t spend enough time with their children; that she had most of the burden despite having a career of her own. “Yeah, I see her point,” he says in a neutral voice, “but I need time for my sports activities on the weekends. I’m not going to give that up. And at night I’m tired, I want to veg out.” As we talked further, it became clear to me that he was unable to experience what his wife’s world was like for her.

Or the computer executive who prided himself on having a stable family life, then casually told me that, even though he believed in the environmental threat of global warming, he couldn’t care less. “I’ll be long gone when New York is under water,” he said. And when I asked him whether he cared about how it might affect his kids or grandkids, he replied with a grin: “Hey, that’s their problem.”

Or the woman who works in the financial industry who told me she’s indifferent to how American Muslims might feel: “I think they’re all terrorists,” she said, “and would like to kill us all, anyway … ”

These may sound like extreme examples, but I hear variations of those themes all the time. EDD keeps you locked inside a self-centered world, which breeds emotional isolation, disconnection and polarization. And that’s highly dangerous in today’s increasingly interconnected, global world. It plays out in ways both small and large: in troubled intimate relationships – when partners become locked into adversarial and oppositional positions; in warfare between groups with different beliefs – like the current polarization over political and social issues; and in current global threats – Sunnis and Shiites killing each other; Palestinians and Israelis locked into a death-grip with each other. Not to mention looming worldwide disasters — continued depletion of the resources and health of the only planet we have.

Empathy vs. Sympathy

Empathy differs from sympathy. Sympathy reflects understanding of another person’s situation, but viewed through your own lens. That is, it’s based on your version of what the other person is dealing with. (“Yeah, I can sympathize with your problem with your elderly mother, because I have my own problems with mine…”). That self-centered focus is similar to what some people think love is when they’re really enthralled with their own feeling of being “in love,” rather than in love with the reality of who their partner is.

In contrast, empathy is what you feel only when you can step outside of yourself and enter the internal world of the other person. Without abandoning or losing your own perspective, you experience the other’s emotions, conflicts, or aspirations from within the vantage point of that person’s world. That kind of connection builds healthy, mutual relationships – an essential part of mental health.

How Do We Develop EDD?

Most people learn that acquiring and achieving things are “normal” — even “healthy” – ways to live. EDD develops when people focus too much on acquiring power, status, money for themselves, at the expense of developing those healthy relationships. Nearly every day we hear or read about people who’ve been derailed by the pursuit of money, power and recognition and end up in rehab or behind bars.

But many of the people I see, whether therapy patients or career and business clients, struggle with their own versions of the same thing through too much emphasis on acquiring — both things and people. It promotes vanity and self-importance. They have become alienated from their own hearts and equate what they have with who they are.

That’s a killer for empathy, because now you’re prey to the delusion that you are completely independent and self-sufficient. You lose touch with the reality that all humans are interconnected and interdependent, all organs of the same body. Your sense of community — absolutely necessary for survival in today’s world – fades away. So does your awareness that we have to sink or swim together, help each other, and sustain the planet we inhabit, or else we’re all in deep trouble. The net result is lack of empathy for other human beings who are on the same boat you are. You don’t recognize that we’re all one, bound together. You only see yourself.

Sometimes, a person’s sudden realization of interconnection jump-starts empathy. Then, people automatically respond from the heart. For example, the response of citizens to the Tsunami in South Asia, or to Hurricane Katrina. Or what I witnessed recently when some passers-by stopped to help the victims of an auto accident.   When empathy is aroused, you let go of your usual attachment to yourself and you want to help, or connect in some way. I sometimes invite people to think of it this way: When you cut your finger, you don’t say, “That’s my finger’s problem, not mine”; nor do you do a cost-benefit analysis before deciding whether to take action. You respond immediately because you feel the pain. 

Empathy Is Hard-Wired

Overcoming EDD is easier than you may think. Recent scientific research shows that the capacity to feel what another person feels is “hard-wired” through what are called “mirror neurons.” Functional magnetic resonance imagery (fMRI) show that regions of the brain involving both emotions and physical sensations light up in someone who observes or becomes aware of another person’s pain or distress. Literally, you do feel another’s pain or other emotions. Similar research shows that generosity and altruistic behavior light up pleasure centers of the brain usually associated with food or sex.

Just as you can develop EDD by too much self-absorption, you can also overcome EDD by retraining your brain. That is, research also shows that your brain is capable of being trained and physically modified through conscious practices. This is known as neuroplasticity. You can “grow” specific emotions and create new brain patterns that reinforce them. As you redirect and refocus your thoughts, feelings, and behavior in the direction you desire, the brain regions associated with them are reinforced. What’s more, changing your brain activity reinforces the changes you’re making in your thoughts and emotions. The result is a self-reinforcing loop between your conscious attitudes, your behavior and your brain activity.

This may sound like science fiction, yet such studies show that you can learn to “reprogram” your brain.” In effect, what you think and feel is what you become. And it means you can learn to grow empathy and overcome EDD.

Practices For Building Empathy

Here are a few practices you can do to help overcome your “EDD in everyday life – whether with your intimate partner, friends, enemies, or strangers:

Empathy For Your Intimate Partner:

  • Envision a characteristic or behavior of yours that you know your partner dislikes. Imagine shifting your consciousness into your partner’s perspective and mentality, even though you may disagree with that perspective or are convinced it’s “wrong.”
  • Immerse yourself in your partner’s perceptions of you. Try to experience them fully. At the same time, hold on to your own views. Don’t let either negate the other.
  • Then, try to understand your partner’s feelings or attitudes as a reflection of who he or she is, based on all the forces and influences and choices that have shaped him or her. Don’t judge.

 Empathy For Someone You Dislike:

It’s especially challenging to generate empathy towards someone you flat-out dislike – maybe even hate. Or, with whom you’ve had big-time conflicts: perhaps an ex-spouse, or someone at work. But you can do it by extending the above practice.

  • Tell yourself how or why that person might have developed negative attitudes or feelings about you. Imagine what the conflict feels like from within his or her perspective.
  • Entertain the idea that you are only partially right; perhaps wrong altogether.
  • Next, open yourself to seeing yourself through the eyes of that person. Just observe, without judging him or her, defending yourself, or agreeing with any of it.

 Empathy For Strangers You Encounter:

It helps you expand your capacity for empathy by practicing it towards people you don’t even know:

  • Identify a situation or encounter with someone who’s a stranger, especially one who may be very different from yourself.       Try to put yourself within the consciousness of that stranger. The checkout person at the grocery store could be an example.
  • Think of ways that he or she is probably like you — someone who desires love, who’s probably experienced some kind of loss or disappointment along the way, or who has aspirations he or she hopes to fulfill.
  • Focus on those commonalities that show you how this person is much like yourself, beneath surface differences.

Empathy For People From Foreign Cultures Or Whose Way Of Life Is Alien To Your Own:

  • Establish a direct personal connection with someone through a charity that links you with a specific recipient of your contribution (e.g., www.alternativegifts.org; or www.greatgifts.org); or a microfinance organization that provides small business loans to specific individuals in developing countries who cannot otherwise qualify (e.g. www.kiva.org; www.microplace.com).

Empathy Fuels Your Mental Health

From empathy, tolerance grows. Tolerance of differences is an important part of the foundation for healthy emotional and mental attitudes and behavior. By focusing on developing empathy, you can deepen your understanding and acceptance of how and why people do what they do, and build respect for others.

This doesn’t mean that you are whitewashing the differences you have with other people, or letting them walk over you. Rather, empathy gives you a stronger, wiser base for resolving conflicts when you have them. You’re able to bridge differences more effectively and with less destructiveness.   Overall, empathy makes you mindful of your commonality and connection with fellow humans — people who suffer and struggle with life in many of the same ways you do. It trumps self-centered, knee-jerk reactions to surface differences like religion, race, or ideology.

And that might put you in a frame of mind where you resonate with the title words of the Elvis Costello song, “What’s So Funny ‘Bout Peace, Love, and Understanding?”