Thursday, February 15, 2007
The "Paradox"of Empathy
Recently, I had a discussion with a friend about empathy and we had opposing viewpoints on it. I claim that it is an innate human capacity to experience another person's emotional thought, feeling or experience. A capacity very much alike to compassion, warmth etc. Its either part of you or not.
She however feels empathy is selective thus choosing to empathize on things that are only important to her or for people she deems worthy of her empathy.
So a googling I went to deepen and broaden my understanding of "empathy". And here's what I have found:
It is the root ability of being able to be involved in the inner experience of sharing in and comprehending the momentary psychological state of another person(def: Roy Schafer) are probably innate to the empathizer's life, training or investigation.
D.M Berger expands on that definition to include understanding from within the frame of reference of that other person.
The opposite of empathy being apathy, is a state of indifference. A condition many of us have whenever we turn on the news or read the papers. Empathy involves feeling and sharing the pain of another and in experiencing empathy for people in war torn nations, some cases have led to clinical depression. In this context, I would have to agree with my friend in having a certain degree of selectiveness in the levels of our empathy for our own self preservation & emotional health.
However, I do believe that "selective empathy" erodes the foundation of a friendship or a relationship. Without a basic emotional understanding of the other there is no relationship. It is the difference between standing back and saying "I am sorry for you and wish things were better" ie sympathy and being one with the person with "I know your pain and can relate to your mental state right now."
So, coming back to my friend's statement of empathizing only with things that are important to her, I conclude that its an oxymoron because the essence of empathy lies in sharing and experiencing the feelings of another person (def: R.R Greenson)
Some experts however believe that not all people have the ability to have empathy or perceive the emotions of others. And research also shows that people empathize easier with those with similarities or people they meet frequently. Hence selective empathy on things that are important to them or the people they choose to empathize with does clearly show their level of connectivity with the people they have shown apathy for.
Indifference manifests in many ways, highlighting the absence of empathy. Wynn Schwartz defines it brilliantly as "We recognize others as emphatic when we feel they have accurately acted on or somehow acknowledged in stated or unstated fashion our values, our motivations, our knowledge our skills and our competence but especially as they appear to recognize the significance of our actions in a manner that we can tolerate their being recognized."
In the context of a relatively close friendship the absence of such recognition and understanding of our actions can only be described as indifference. Proof of apathy being demonstrated in insensitivity of actions or words that clearly illustrates to the other person that the friend or partner is unable to perceive their mental and emotional state.
The statement of "he/she doesn't understand me at all" doesn't seem to be so flaky after all. It is the difference between surface sociability and quiet understanding. It isn't about the length of time the relationship has gone through but the level of commitment you have to the other person, to allow yourself to empathize despite the potential emotional risk to yourself.
Posted by Tala at 9:43 PM