Why Empathy Fails

In order to empathize with another person, you have to recognize that he actually exists apart from and without specific reference to you.  You must understand that she has a distinct identity and an interior life of her own, with which you might possibly empathize.  While there are some interesting exceptions to this rule, it’s a useful place to start a discussion of why some people can’t empathize, or why their ability to feel empathy is severely restricted.  We can look at the spectrum of psychological disorders in terms of ability to recognize and tolerate separateness, then understand the ways that this ability will limit our capacity to feel for other people.

In psychotic disorders, for example, where splitting and projection dominate, other people serve as containers for disowned parts of our own psyche.  As a result, we may try to avoid them — annihilate them, in the most profound cases; or if idealization is involved, we may want to merge with and “own” them instead (think celebrity stalkers, for instance).  But because we’re so busy projecting into them, we can’t see those people for who they really are; we can’t empathize with their internal experience.  People who present with autism symptoms famously lack the ability to empathize.  Autistic defenses seek either to shut out the external world because it feels too threatening (shell-like defenses) or to obscure and erase personal boundaries because separateness is intolerable (confusional defenses); the awareness of other people as separate and distinct is therefore severely compromised. Empathy is virtually impossible.

Lack of empathy is a primary diagnostic criteria for narcissistic personality disorder, as well.  For these individuals, other people serve mainly to provide narcissistic feedback or to contain our shame.  If you exist (in my personal universe) merely in order to admire me, then I can’t see who you are or how you feel.  If you exist so that I may feel superior to you (the container for all my projected damage), I likewise can’t empathize with your actual feelings.  Even in less troubled people, narcissistic behavior of various kinds reflects a limited ability to recognize or take an interest in others, restricting the capacity to empathize with them.  This is an experience we’ve all had in our everyday lives:  the self-absorbed friend who talks on and on about herself, or dumps his problems into us, with no interest in us or our feelings.  (I discussed this dynamic in my post on the toilet function of friendship.)

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Defense Mechanisms IV: “Thinking”

In an early post entitled Breathe More, Think Less, I introduced the idea that thinking, particularly verbal thought, can serve as a type of psychological defense.  I’d like to revisit that subject today and explore it in greater detail as part of this series on the defense mechanisms.  One recent email from a site visitor mentioned non-stop “chatter” in his head; because so many people seem to suffer from an uncontrollable word-flow in their
thoughts, it seems an important subject to discuss.  Much of what I have to say appeared in an overly-condensed way in that earlier post.

As discussed in my piece on post-traumatic stress disorder, when the early experience of helplessness feels unbearable, for whatever reason, we may try to blot out awareness of that experience; that particular defense mechanism would be called denial, or more precisely, denial of psychic reality.  Another response might be to take flight into precocious intellectual development, which also involves a kind of denial:  I am not small, helpess and afraid; I’m really quite highly developed — just listen to what I can do with words! In such cases, intellectual and verbal ability develop prematurely, but detached from authentic experience as a defense against it; words take on a life of their own and are often felt to have a magical ability to ward off pain.
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Defense Mechanisms II: Denial

Like projection and repression, denial is one of those psychological concepts that most people understand to some degree. It originated in the psychodynamic theories of Sigmund Freud, and his daughter Anna Freud wrote about it at length in The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defense.  Today,  virtually all psychotherapists recognize its existence, whether or not they regard it as clinically significant.  With the popularization of her Five Stages of Grief, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross raised the public profile of denial (the first of those stages) and the prevalence of 12-step programs has also promoted awareness of the concept:  a basic step in addressing addiction is to admit that you are, in fact, an addict, rather than to remain in denial about it.  The concept has become so much a part of our cultural knowledge that even  kids nowadays make joking reference to it:  The teenage son of a friend once told her (I no longer remember the occasion), “You are on that long river called Denial.”  Search that phrase on Google and you’ll get millions of results.

“You are in denial” is something most people have said or heard at one point or another in their lifetimes.  The expression generally refers to the denial of a fact.  “You’re in denial — can’t you see she has no interest you?”  Or:  “He is never going to leave his wife — you’re in denial.”  The concept is a simple one.  An unacceptable fact exists, one that conflicts with our wishes or beliefs, and so we deny that it is true.  We may also deny a feeling, especially if we’ve received cultural or parental messages that tell us such a feeling is unacceptable.   As a result of internalizing those messages, we may hide the existence of those feelings even from ourselves.  “I do not feel angry.” Or:  “No, I don’t hate my sister.”

As with most defenses, the existence of a conflict often motivates denial:   a fact conflicts with our wishes, or a feeling conflicts with our values and so we deny it.  Such denial can occur on the individual or group level, as with individual Holocaust deniers and whole countries that insist it never occurred. The wish to avoid pain also drives us to use denial.  Feelings of guilt for something that occurred may be unbearable to us so we deny responsibility for it.  I believe this variety of denial can also occur on group and national levels:  unbearable guilt surely plays some part in Holocaust denial and other instances of genocide.

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Pride and the Healing of Shame

Because I write and think so much about the psychology of shame and its toxic effects, I’m often asked about overcoming shame, to explain how one “recovers” from shame, or whether I have any guidance about “healing shame.”  My answers in the past have felt inadequate to me, but a recent session with a long-term client helped me bring my thoughts on this issue into focus.

Stan, a middle-aged married man, has struggled with unbearable shame for most of his life and has relied on the typical defenses against shame described in earlier posts.  In particular, he relies on blaming as his primary mode of defense.  For example, he often rants in silence against his wife whenever they have a disagreement:  he’ll mentally complain about her behavior with a sense of grievance, blaming her for the argument.
This has been a life-long pattern in his relationships.  Behind his defensiveness, he has suffered from the sense that he’s emotionally damaged in some fundamental way.

During the economic downturn, Stan suffered some reverses in his business that have placed a great strain on his family, largely shifting the financial burden of supporting them onto his wife’s shoulders for the time being.  She hasn’t criticized him for what has happened nor complained about the weighty responsibility she now must carry.  She recognizes that the economic downturn wasn’t his fault but Stan nonetheless feels humiliated and defensive.  It taps into a lifelong feeling that he is damaged and ineffectual.

Recently, Stan has remarked on his wife’s increasing moodiness.  Even the smallest things seem to set her off; when they re-connect at the end of their work day, she instantly launches into an account of all the things that irritate her about her job.  She strikes him as angry.  Because he feels ashamed about his limited inability to contribute financially, he tries to be as supportive as possible but finds these “bitch sessions” increasingly difficult to bear.

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The Role of Helplessness in PTSD Symptoms and Other Disorders

As you may know, many people who experience traumatic events do not subsequently develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).  One of the determining factors seems to be the feeling of extreme helplessness at the time the trauma occurred:  people who don’t feel helpless are able to process the experience in their usual way.  In language I’ve used elsewhere on this site, they are better able to “contain” their experience.  When someone is overtaken unaware by a traumatic event, however, they can’t rely on their usual resources to process or contain the flood of fear, anxiety, pain, etc. aroused by the event.  To protect itself from this overwhelming experience, the mind erects a barrier against the memory, segregating it from other memories and emotions in a process of defense against it.  The defense fails as the memory can’t be entirely excluded but continues to exert an extremely powerful effect.  The paradoxical result of this effort to ward off an overwhelming experience is to give it a lasting power to cause pain.

It was Sigmund Freud and Josef Breuer, of course, who first theorized about the power of unintegrated traumatic memories.  In their Studies on Hysteria (1895), the authors presented a theory that women who exhibited conversion (hysterical) symptoms suffered from “reminiscences” or memories — and in particular, memories of childhood sexual abuse.  They believed that these memories retained a lasting effect because, at the time the trauma occurred, these children were helpless and unable to protect themselves from the assault or react to it in a normal fashion.  As a result, the memory of that traumatic experience becomes walled off, segregated from other experiences and memories; it “acts like a foreign body” in the mind because it hasn’t been subjected to normal mental processing like other experiences (p. 6).

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