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.)
In borderline personality disorder, the picture is more complicated. These individuals have a fluctuating sense of self and separateness: at times, they may feel grandiose and superior to everyone else, at others like a worthless piece of shit and beneath them. But now and then, they have moments of greater clarity about who they are and what the people around them are actually like. I’ve worked with borderline clients who, at times, were capable of enormous empathy. In the transference, as they gain a better understanding of the dependent nature of the psychotherapy relationship, they often develop great insight into their therapist’s internal workings. I’ve worked with borderline clients who could intuit my feelings with more accuracy than just about anyone else. Often, this kind of empathy has developed as a survival mechanism when the parents were unstable: getting what you needed from them depended a lot on picking your moments, knowing when your mother or father was emotionally available and when you needed to stay clear. Sometimes such children rely on empathy in an attempt to “cure” their parents, hoping this will make them more available and able to provide what is needed emotionally. This describes my own background fairly well and it had much to do with my decision to become a therapist. I don’t think I’m unusual in that regard.
Where symptoms of depression dominate a person, they tend to obscure the outside world and the people in it. We may idealize others, or envy them for having the supposedly happier life we crave. Or we may become highly dependent and look to others as caretakers who are there to rescue us. In cases of bipolar disorder, where states of hopelessness alternate with manic flight, we tend to avoid other people as reminders of the reality we’d like to escape, or idealize them as our salvation. In neither case can we deeply empathize with another person’s pain. Finally, in anxiety disorders, where our own emotions often feel threatening, other people’s feelings may also overwhelm us. We can’t empathize because we can’t bear the way we feel inside when we do.
Even in people who don’t easily fit into any of these diagnostic groups, or who don’t suffer from a psychiatric illness, empathy may be compromised. For example, I’ve discussed the way that political alignments or some religious affiliations depend upon splitting and the de-individualization of the Other. If you look at the current levels of hatred in politics, it’s clear that people on the “other side” have no authentic reality; it would therefore be impossible to empathize with them or their actual experience. If you consider how certain fundamentalist religions vilify and hate any number of sub-groups — immigrants, homosexuals, Jews, Arabs, etc. — it’s clear that members of those sub-groups aren’t experienced as real people, men and women with internal emotional lives who feel pain and suffer. Splitting and projection often place great limits on the ability to empathize.
People often display sympathy instead of empathy, confusing the two (see my post on the difference between them). By expressing sympathy, you don’t actually have to feel with the other person. Sympathy may be conceptual, or it may be about yourself rather than the other person — I’m such a kind, caring person. Sympathy is often an expression of sentimentality, where divisions between good and bad, loving and hating impulses are clearly drawn. It may have a story-like quality. Rather than expressing real empathy for what the other person actually feels, we may express sympathy for the way we view him instead, and the sanitized feelings we attribute to her.
Sometimes, to empathize might be to share a person’s rage. Empathy might mean feeling anger and hatred. If we have a difficult time bearing our own such feelings, it will place limits on how much we can empathize when other people feel that way. If we have strong defense mechanisms that push our own destructive impulses from awareness, people who threaten those defenses by arousing such feelings present a problem. Rather than empathizing (and thus coming into contact with our disowned experience), we’ll try to keep those people at a distance. We might express sympathy instead. We might try to “talk them out” of their feelings, or offer reassurance. In some cases, we may develop an antipathy to such people and try to avoid them. Anyone who reminds us of our “shadow self” can easily become an enemy.
For all these reasons, anyone who wants to practice intensive psychotherapy must have lengthy treatment. As you know if you’ve read my bio, I spent 14 years in treatment, most of it going multiple sessions per week. What I learned in treatment, developing the ability to tolerate my own split-off feelings, shaped my abilities as a therapist. None of us can help a client explore an issue that remains unaddressed within ourselves; none of us can truly empathize with an experience if we can’t tolerate our own version of it.
Finding Your own Way:
Think about an instance where you felt you were unable to empathize. Maybe the other person even accused you of being unempathic.
What feelings was the person expressing? How did you feel in response? If you look back, was the person conveying one feeling but verbally expressing something entirely different? Maybe you empathized with the unconscious communication when that person expected you instead to sympathize with what was being said.
Or maybe what that person was going through triggered something you would rather not have felt. If this is the case, you might have experienced some feelings of aversion or hostility. Have you wanted to avoid this person since then? Do you feel especially critical, maybe even judgmental?
Think about times when you were depressed or deeply anxious. How did your depression or anxiety affect your ability to empathize with those around you? Maybe you felt too overwhelmed to have “room” for their feelings.
Here’s another example: As I’ve said before, babies are very good at evoking feelings in us, “forcing” us to empathize, as it were. Can you think of times when you found it intolerable to be around such a baby? Maybe the projection of its feelings into you triggered emotions of your own you couldn’t bear. That’s the challenge of parenting, of course — learning to empathize and bear with the overwhelming emotions felt by an infant and then projected into us.