In the present times, being empathic is considered a very desirable attribute. We read and learn about its role in bettering any type of relationship, we try to assimilate tips on how to exercise it more, and at the same time, we construct a mental category in which we place the “un-empathic” individual, as an anti-model of being. We know that lacking empathy can be a sign of antisocial personality disorder, we know that serial killers can’t be empathic and we try to make anything in order to display empathy as a value and also as proof that we are fit for the social environment we want to be a part of.
Recent private communications with Dr. Loretta Breuning – author, Professor Emerita of Management at California State University, East Bay, and a docent at the Oakland Zoo – have shown that the subject of empathy in present social contexts is not that easy to deal with when trying to make both yourself and others happy.
Dr. Breuning and I decided to address the concept of empathy in joint blog posts based on our communication and the new perspectives that were generated by our points of view. The present blog post is the synthesized result of our collaboration from my perspective, and I invite you to read Dr. Loretta Breuning’s article here, on her Psychology Today blog – Your Neurochemical Self –, to get a more complete view on our conclusions.
The idea of addressing the empathy topic came once we’ve considered the world’s tendency towards “crises” of all kinds: Financial crisis, the fear that the “world is going to end” and placing deadlines based on random criteria, fear of epidemics or cataclysms or even lesser ones like the personal problems our friends have, etc… But the thing is that not all of us react the same to the threat of crisis. Some of us seem to be more affected by the anxious and/or obsessive reaction to this threat, while others first analyze the threat with the tools our rational cognitions provide. And when the two structures meet, the first seems to be asking for support or help while faced with the crisis, while the second can invalidate the anxious context. And there’s when the empathy dilemma arises.
Displaying empathy can relieve the emotional state of the person in distress, but the one displaying it may not always feel that this is coherent with their internal response to the “distress” or “crisis” the other one is going through. Therefore, we may feel that our empathic response is not authentic, but only a socially desirable behavior that we activate because we want to offer comfort to the other person. When we don’t validate the cause of the “distress” or “crisis”, we can become unavailable to provide support. So what is there for us to do? Should we display empathy just to comfort the other one or choose to be (apparently) un-empathic and face the consequences – that can include us being seen as “cold” persons and being rejected socially?
Dr. Breuning considers that the way we react in crisis contexts and the way we choose to activate our empathy are deeply related to the way our mammalian self sees the world. Therefore, we want to be accepted by our group (the herd) and need to remain close to others. In order to do so, we can sometimes make choices that trigger our happy chemicals (oxytocin, dopamine) as a consequence of the way we respond to the pain the other one is displaying. We learn that in order to receive our chemical reward we need to join the pain of others (finding a “common enemy” triggers cortisol release). So then we will seek pain-causing contexts so that we can have the opportunity to release and then diminish the cortisol levels and get our happiness back. Basically, we learn that without pain we can’t be happy, so we won’t act toward preventing pain.
I really like the way Loretta translated a psychological dynamic in a chemical cycle that can help us understand why we do the things we do in a crisis context. I believe this makes us more aware of what kind of habit or pattern we need to change in order to have a non-pain-dependent happiness in “the herd”.
There are many ways to think about empathy, but for this blog post, I decided to consider it as a way to support or block our assertive behavior.
In short, being assertive means displaying behaviors that are not submissive nor aggressive and that are coherent with our own belief systems.
So, when deciding whether to display an empathic behavior or not, I believe that the most important thing we should do is to decide which of the alternatives is more “me”, and which one makes me feel good. And when I choose the one that makes me feel good, I think it’s important to make sure that this is a genuine positive feeling, not the absence of the negative one. If I do something just to avoid the negative outcome, then it’s a compromise and one needs to analyze the necessity of that too. Is it worth it? In the short run? What will the long run bring?
Dr. Breuning stressed one of the most intense negative feelings we can be faced with when making such compromise: guilt. We feel guilty when we don’t offer support or join the other one in his personal journey.
Guilt is a feeling powerful enough to make us want to avoid it. And by providing empathic-like responses even when we don’t consider the cause of the crisis valid, we can make that happen. But does it stop all negative feelings or is it just replaced by something else? Like a sense of personal incongruence or authenticity, or the feeling that we’ve been submissive and gave in because we didn’t know what else to do?
But what triggers our feeling of guilt?
I believe it resides in two sources: Our cognitions and the behavior the other one displays towards our actions.
The cognitions that can trigger guilt are various and some of them may be what we call “introjections” in psychology – beliefs or cognitions of others that we’ve incorporated into our own cognitive patterns, mainly during our early childhood. These cognitions can include the following: “Good people help others no matter what”, “When one asks for your support, you must provide it”, “To you, others should be more important than yourself” etc. When our actual beliefs don’t match the old ones, they collide, generating a cognitive dissonance. And we need to settle for one of them, in order to gain that authenticity.
Being assertive also means saying no to what we consider unreasonable requests. So, when somebody appeals to my empathy in a context that I don’t think justifies this kind of behavior, I can label the request as unreasonable and choose not to respond to it. No guilt implied, because I do what I believe I should do.
Going back to what generates our guilt, let’s consider the person requesting our support. When we provide it, their mood improves, our happy chemicals flow and we have a sense of relief. But when we don’t provide help or support, the other one may have a bad reaction to this: they may get upset, they may say upsetting things to us, they can blame us too for their mood, etc. And this can make us feel bad. We can annihilate this bad feeling once we understand that it is not us that directly caused the other one’s bad mood. It is our right to refuse requests and while we do this in a non-aggressive manner, it is enclosed in the “assertive behavior” category of behaviors. Assertiveness does not cause pain. If the other one is still having negative feelings, then it is rather because of their own psychological patterns. These negative feelings can be genuine or, in pathological cases, means for manipulation. Whatever the reason, they are not related to us, but to the other one’s pattern. We can join the other one in their process to change those patterns if they want us to, but there is no need for us to consider ourselves part of their crisis too.
Don’t place yourself in a dynamic that is going to perpetuate the pain cycle (for you and the other one), but try to break that pattern.
We can support the other one without joining that cycle. Empathy is about recognizing the other one’s feelings, not about providing support regardless of the context!
We can understand the other one without changing our own perspective, but only borrow theirs to understand them better. We can understand that they are genuinely concerned about something, without starting to be concerned or anxious ourselves. And when we are OK, we can provide support in the real sense.
One way to assist the other one when facing a crisis is to provide them with a “reality mirror” by conveying our own beliefs about the situation. Don’t fight or invalidate their beliefs, but only provide your own and let the other one choose whether to consider the new perspective or stick to their old one. Remember that we can’t and shouldn’t try to change the other person, but only bring our authentic self in the relationship.
Also, don’t be apologetic about anything you are, feel or believe. Being assertive means hurting no one, YOU included! So if we stick to this kind of functionality, I believe we should be fine, even in a world filled with “crisis”.
Enjoy your authentic self!
P.S. Get more education on our mammalian brain by reading Dr. Loretta Breuning’s books, also reviewed here, on Psychology Corner.