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.


  1. Friend With Selective Empathy2/16/2007 1:23 AM


    You chose to give away your two cats. I can empathise with the death of your two kittens because that was unavoidable and sudden and it was pitiful to see them starving to death. But this was your own decision to give them away due to circumstances which you claimed was too difficult. I never ask why because I just respect your decision as it is. If you had decided to give away, hence you would have given a lot of thought about it and decided to do so in their best interest which is for the better. And when its for the better, it means something positive for them which is something you should not be sad about. If you cannot handle the emotions of giving them away, then maybe you should have thought harder before doing so instead of persecuting your friend for not empathising it with you.

    Maybe its about time you have some empathy for your friend with selective empathy (who has always been there for you for all that you went through except for this blot on her excellent track record) and find out exactly why she did not/could not empathise with you for these 2 cats instead of bitching it on your blog!

  2. Dear Friend,

    Thank you for using my name on your comments while I have shielded your identity.

    The crux of the matter is for the past two months, as you know, my life has been quite in turmoil.

    However, as I have come to learn, by your own admission, my behaviour of late has not been according to what you have perceived me to be.

    You chose to:
    1. Highlight strongly your contempt for an oversight on my part the very day AFTER I had given my two cats away, which incidentally have been with me for more than 4 years. (You can refer to another blogger friend of ours on the emotional toll it takes on you as she has had a similar experience.)

    The choice of your words and the time you chose to do that was really clear to me you were not being sensitive.

    2. Again, by your own admission, you told me there is a list of things you are unhappy with about my behaviour lately but choose not to tell me. To me this is akin to kicking someone while they are down. Which is something I don't think you are capable of doing, hence the logical conclusion is you don't realise/recognise that I AM down. Therefore you do lack empathy for me in this situation.

    I was NOT bitching about it in my blog because like I told you, I found your comment to be a valid one to investigate further. And I did, and I wrote my conclusions about it. I am sure there are as many people in the world who relate to your statements as there are who relate to mine.

    Neither are wrong because I think we all make our own choices.

    What I do understand from your comments above is that you fail to understand or comprehend that even if something is the right thing to do, the emotional pain that goes with it is still there. A better future or for the best is not a bandaid for a wound.

  3. Dear Friend

    There is no such thing as selective empathy. Either you have it or you don't. By you comment of if it was the better you should not feel sad about it. Well by that comment then i should feel sad about deciding to end the life support for my dying 2yrs old daughter because it was for the better... to me the just means you are a cold unfeeling unempathic person. I'm sorry but it doesn't matter if it is for the better or not if you have come to love a person pet or thing there is always pain in the loss.

    sincerly yours

    hurt and pissed off

  4. "Friend" with Selective Empathy2/22/2007 1:19 AM

    Dear Tala,

    As you are the owner of the blog, only you have the ability to delete your name in my comment if you are so concerned about your identity in the first place.

    I have many more things to write but I will not do so as I also read that your uncle has recently passed away... lest I be accused for not being empathic with your loss once again. I would like to offer to you sincerely, my deepest condolences for the loss of your beloved uncle. Let bygones be bygones.

    As for Mr/Ms Annonymous - I have four things to say to you:-

    a) You should add in the word "not" after the word "should" at the fourth line of your post. For a second i thought you were contradicting yourself.

    b) you must be kidding me as you are comparing the loss of your own flesh and blood with the loss of pets! Both are losses no doubt but in my view it differs greatly in so many degrees.

    c) Dont ever assume I do not understand nor have I not experienced the pain of loss. I just deal with the pain in a different way in comparison with you.

    d) Lastly, I am truly sorry you had to make the hard decison of plugging the life of your child. I am sure it was the most difficult decision you ever had to make and no I dont expect you to be cheerful about it. However, life goes on and so must you. All the best.

  5. Dear Friend,

    Although I am the owner of the blog I chose the option of unmoderated comments. Which means I cannot edit comments that are made by posters. As my blog isn't a controversial one on highly sensitive issues, I didn't see the need for it.

    In my opinion, there isn't much to say as our differing opinions are clear as daylight. I was accused of many things by you, that you felt were valid. And likewise, I feel my opinions on you are valid as well.

    Hence, its a stalemate. Live and learn. Move on.