The Empathy Dialectic

Nearly every characteristic of a human personality is acceptable at some point on its continuum. Emotions are the same way. A healthy person is neither too giddy nor entirely lacking in joy, neither frequently outraged nor meek, neither paralyzingly brilliant nor oppressively stupid. The key to these conditions is their descriptors: too, entirely, frequently, paralyzingly, oppressively. Common sense though it may be that too much or too little of something is no good, humans are notoriously poor at recognizing when something is needed or in excess. Empathy is something that very few people would naturally see as in need of temperament.

In fact, the empathy continuum is one of the more fascinating dialectics in pathological psychology. An extreme presence of empathy, or certain unbalanced components of it, can be equally as excruciating as conditions in which empathy is sorely lacking. I’m eager to dive into the dialectic, for I fall into the category of the former extreme and some poor folks I have encountered on my treatment path fall into the latter category, and both are worth examining and healing.

I’ll start with a basic definition of empathy; Google it, and you’ll be told it’s the “ability to understand and share feelings of another.” Frequently mistaken with compassion, empathy requires no mutual condition. You may be compassionate towards a friend because you have a history of a loving relationship with them, but empathy doesn’t need to be deserved or acquired. It is, on account of common existence. Wielded well and it’s a powerful tool for good. Empathy has arranged armistices, pardons, agreements, treaties, and beautiful, complex relationships between humans. It is, I believe, the driving ideology behind neo-liberal politics. “Bleeding hearts” are just beating, human hearts.

I’m going to discuss empathy in three phases: my experience with its excess, my experience with its want, and my cumulative understanding of its appropriate, middling place.

For a long time, I thought that empathy was the most important human trait, and the more the better. Raised in a liberal household, I received less empathy than might be assumed. My parents are non-religious, and while I don’t see religion correlating with empathy, its supposed driving principles do. They are atheists to differing degrees, and the kind who are moreso against religion than instead proactively for an alternate set of morals. A little girl bursting with much more emotion than her usually underweight frame could ever hold, many times over, I was met by a family with a very low emotional threshold. I received little emotional outreach and, in a family system that was fracturing more and more by the minute, naturally drawing its component parts into themselves, I had nowhere to turn for empathetic examples. My twin swung one way, I swung the other. My direction was opposite from my familial model.

Here is a short list of the ways my hyperactive empathy has been described. My old, longtime psychiatrist used to call me an “empath,” which is a non-scientific term for someone who has the seemingly superhuman (in literature it is superhuman but practically he meant extraordinarily high) ability to feel what people around them feel. Aside from the empath comment, both my extreme sensitivity and admittedly remarkable perceptive abilities (much moreso of others than of myself, I’m afraid…) are frequent focuses of my treatment. I heap onto others the love, care, attention, empathy that I wished I had gotten in childhood. My brain was wired different than my family’s, and I emerged explosively. Tending to others in this way soothes my core, there isn’t anything more satisfying.  

This gets me into trouble. My empathy is bursting into tears when a squirrel trips and then feeling bad when someone has to console me, because what a burden that is, consolation! The path starts with an excess of emotion. A friend is having a problem; let’s say they’re being harassed (this is a real example). I feel so overwhelmingly for the other person- my sense of injustice active and pulsing, anger bubbling, fear and timidity abounding- that I am compelled to act on behalf of them, and doubly as hard as I ever would for myself. I fall onto the sword for others, jump onto their explosives. I had to do that for my family system growing up, and without re-training, we’re all just replaying our childhoods.

This story has an insidious flipside that serves as the other extreme of the dialectic.

I attended a school with people who largely were diagnosed with conditions that are characterized by a deficiency in empathy. My issues were so opposite on the spectrum that I didn’t understand the people around me, but in hindsight, almost everyone fit into (and I knew to be diagnosed with) one of a few diagnoses: Borderline Personality, Antisocial Personality, Autism.

Of course, these conditions aren’t inherently bad. They’re not even on the same level of lack of empathy, between the three of them. The first, Borderline, is only loosely traced to lack of empathy, and its connection is really that while its sufferers experience emotions intensely and care about others like anyone else, the intense internal turmoil and fluctuation they experience is such that they are naturally more centered within themselves. Antisocial personality is characterized by an inability to have empathy, and is a dangerous condition but one that can be managed with enough intention. Autism is partially defined by a lack of empathy, but rarely insidiously; every autistic person I’ve ever known has been an absolute delight of a person who finds alternate ways to meaningfully connect with their fellow humans.

Most of the people at my former school were diagnosed with Borderline. I’m extremely sympathetic to the diagnosis. It is a neutral label; folks with it are not who they are because of the disorder, but because of what they choose to act on. In a school for troubled teens, aka an environment that was already bound to feature bullying, folks who particularly suffered from impulsivity and turbulent emotions, coupled with somewhat limited empathy, were at a disadvantage when it came to treating others with compassion.

The very extreme end of a lack of empathy is Antisocial Personality, sometimes known as the infamous condition of sociopathy. Antisocial personalities are unable to empathize with others. Their poor executive functioning skills are the least of their worries, but they don’t worry much at all; the classic lying, manipulation, antagonism, and failure to hold oneself accountable are mainly destructive to others, though they naturally tank the life of the sociopath, too. A sociopath cannot socially experience the world the same way most do, so in order to survive (socialization and empathy are evolutionarily advantageous and generally necessary), they adapt by being excellent at mimicry. Sociopaths who live with deeply empathetic people may appear to be empathetic, and the crocodile tears are compelling with backs turned, but ultimately their deceit and manipulation say otherwise. It is a condition that results in much pain for all involved and, while there is no treatment per se, acknowledging the condition and finding ways to manage it are two good options for the possibility of a healthy and meaningful life, with and around it.

Behold, the two ends of the spectrum. Some are empaths and some are sociopaths. What is the inbetween, and why should we want it?

A study on empathy done by Jean Decety and Yoshiya Moriguchi asserts that there are for major components to empathy, and they’re all necessary.

  1. Affective sharing based on automatic coupling.
  2. Self awareness, or delineation between the self and the other.
  3. Mental flexibility to adopt the perspective of the other.
  4. Modulation of emotion.

Any deficiency, they say, in one of the four of these elements, is risky. Lack of self awareness, or delineation, leads frequently to emotional contagion, or no discrimination between the emotions of the self and the other. This can be relatively benign, like when seeing a homeless woman prompts a twinge of sorrow and pity, perhaps guilt, or it can be excessive, like the bond between co-dependent partners.

A lacking of self-awareness leads to a non-functional degree of affective sharing and hyperactive adoption of others’ emotions. This is the crux of the case against either end of the empathy spectrum; it just doesn’t work.

If we assume that the goal of an overly empathetic person is to help others, the debilitating nature of overly disqualifies that person from making a meaningful impact. There is no separation between themselves and others, and modulation of emotion and self awareness wilt, leading to hyper-arousal and an outsized experience of other’s emotions that is crippling.

If we assume that the goal of an unempathetic, perhaps sociopathic person is preservation both of their wellbeing and their idealized self image, such people are stunting themselves here, too. Relating positively to others is a non-negotiable element of socialization that is crafted by many thousands of years of evolution, so in a world of almost entirely empathetic, sociable beings, not fitting in, in this way, is a death sentence, so to speak.

Finding the sustainable center of a quality is something we should all be so lucky as to perfect in our lifetimes. The pursuit of balance is a constant cornerstone of human suffering, and as such is a constant cornerstone of therapy. It’s undeniably good to feel for others, but we need to create a separation between our emotions and those of others in order to best tend to theirs, somewhat paradoxically. If we want to be empathetic, good, well balanced creatures, establishing the four elements of empathy is a good place to start.

This is one of the greatest battles I face on a daily basis. Where do they stop, and I begin? How much feeling is too much? What is appropriate and what merely perpetuates internal suffering, characterized by helplessness?

Reflect on those questions honestly, and you’re on the right path.

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2 thoughts on “The Empathy Dialectic

  1. Huh, this is interesting! Thank you for writing this! It made me see how too much empathy really can be a problem. I think it’s a bit of a problem for me. I struggle with separating my emotions from their emotions and with modulation of emotion. Now I know what to work on!

  2. As always, this is beautifully written my dear. Of interest especially to me (as your mother) is the fact of your twin sister, which you mention above. I always jokingly referred to you two as my own little test cases, since each of you could be perfectly compared to the other because of your obvious demographic similarities. These comparisons never failed to amaze me, as you two were and are so very different. It is not surprising or good or bad that what was just right for one was not enough or was too much for the other. People think twins are mostly about their similarities, but to me, you two are mostly about the great number of ways in which you are different from each other. Fraternal twins are just siblings born at the same time instead of a couple of years apart. What you and your twin share is, I now realize, less interesting than what is different between you. All of you is lovable.

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