The backlash regarding empathy is fierce. Yet, the bulk of studies cited regarding the negative impact of empathy appear flawed. First, no research has yet provided a direct link between empathy and aggression. Second, empathy was not actually measured, sympathy was. Finally, the extrapolation of the results to the general population without controlling for subjects who may have personality disorders is like a nutritionist measuring the nutritional impact of wheat bread without screening clients for a gluten allergy.
Most of the studies cited in the against empathy movement are studies which place the subject in a position of control over another person’s plight. For example, one study asked the subjects to “make an allocation decision that affected the welfare of others.” Another experiment was entitled, “Playing God.” Any time a person takes control over another person’s situation they are not empathizing. They are sympathizing. These research experiments measured sympathy not empathy.
Empathy is feeling someone else’s specific feeling to achieve greater understanding and to help them feel less alone. Period. Sympathy, also defined as pity, is when a person feels sorrow for someone else. Often, pity tempts people to try and save, rescue, or fix things for someone else. When one person is in a position of power over the other person because they are exerting some sort of influence or control, they are on a different emotional plain. They are expressing sympathy. “Playing God,” or “allocating resources that impact the welfare of others” is sympathizing. It involves a bit of narcissism because instead of feeling another person’s pain as an equal, the sympathizer is in a position of power over the other person. This instantly rules out any chance of empathy and is often ego gratifying for the sympathizer.
The perils of sympathy are significant. The receiver of sympathy often feels stripped of their self-efficacy because they are at the mercy of someone else. In many instances it causes a victim mentality in the individual receiving the sympathy. Empathy, on the other hand, is relating to a human to human as an equal. It is empowering and healing. Empathy is a human being’s greatest tool to heal in a relationship.
This distinction is clear in parenting. Parents who empathize with their child, help the child regulate their emotions in a healthy way, which creates strong character in the child. On the other hand, parents who sympathize are tempted to save their child by fixing their problem. The parent operates from a position of power in the interaction, disrupting any chance of emotional attunement or empathy because they are on a different emotional plain. They become the powerful fixer.
A simple example is a mom who is driving her 8-year-old daughter home from tennis practice. From the back seat, her daughter says to her softly and sadly, “Mom, I was the worst one tonight. I was the first one out every time. I'm pretty sure I'm the worst one every night.”
Obviously, this is the last thing the mom wants to hear from her child after a long day, and she realizes she has three options for a response.
- Deny her daughter of her feelings and say, “Oh no. You’re not the worst one. There are other kids worse then you.”
- Sympathize and say, “You poor thing. I am going to talk to your coach tomorrow about this. He needs to change things. It doesn't seem fair.”
- Empathize with her feelings and gently and lovingly say, “That hurts…. It hurts to feel like the worst one. I get it. I have felt like the worst one a lot in my life, and it stings.” Following with, “Stick with it, kiddo. It will get better. You'll get better.”
Of course, empathy is the winner. The empathy prevented the little girl from feeling alone in her hurt. She felt understood and connected to her mom, which immediately allowed her to metabolize the hurt feelings and recover, becoming stronger and more determined.
Empathy is feeling your child's hurt for a moment in order to understand, which is emotional attunement. When a parent thinks about how their child feels and allows themselves to feel it too, and then honor the feeling, the child does not feel alone in their predicament. They feel understood and connected to the parent. This is healing in and of itself, which creates resiliency and security in the child, and closeness in the parent/child relationship. Bending the rules, shrinking expectations, or demanding the rules be changed for the child is never necessary.
In addition to the misinterpretation of empathy, the studies did not control for subjects who had diagnosed or undiagnosed personality disorders. Individuals who suffer from a personality disorder struggle with empathy. This may have skewed the findings.
One study describes subjects who “empathized” for a person who represented their soccer team versus a person who did not. The problem with this study is that the decision to favor or not favor a person based on an allegiance to the same soccer team was not the fault of empathy. It was the result of a characterological issue.
Personality disordered individuals, or narcissists, perceive the world in black and white terms. They have a polarized view which idealizes people or denigrates them. Individuals are perceived as either good or bad. Often, personality disordered individuals value people who agree with their perspective and devalue or lack empathy for people who don’t. A lack of empathy exists in these studies because of a personality issue not because of empathy. The argument that feeling empathy for one party automatically evokes a person to feel hostile and aggressive towards an opposing party is an issue of character, not empathy. Yet, none of the studies controlled for this.
There is only one study in the anti-empathy rhetoric that indicated the subjects in the study had no known history of a major psychiatric disorder. Still, the study did not specifically control for subjects who may have an undiagnosed personality disorder and, therefore, struggle with empathy.
The percentage of personality disordered individuals in the US is upwards of 15%. If NPD and BPD are included in this number, it climbs to 25%. In addition, the number of people with undiagnosed NPD is being realized. Thus, it is quite possible that almost one third of the subjects who participated in these studies had a personality disorder, which means they struggle with empathy as is.
Thus, it is not empathy that directly causes someone to be cruel, insensitive, or vindictive, it is how a person acts on empathy. The same can be said for all the human emotions. Anger is not a bad emotion but acting on it inappropriately is. That is not the fault of anger, but it is the fault of character. This is supported by the most recent research which concluded, no research has yet provided evidence for a direct link between empathy and aggression, especially in the absence of provocation or desire to punish a wrongdoer. Any heightened emotion can trigger an appropriate or an inappropriate response. This is not the fault of the emotion, but the person acting on it. Emotions are the essence of who humans are. They differentiate us from machines and computers. If the power of empathy can be harnessed for healing, the world will be transformed.