The Power of Empathy


I enjoyed this short from Collective Evolution featured in a Psychology Today article in April, 2014, on the difference between empathy and sympathy and so share it with readers today.

While most of us know the meaning of the two words and do not need an animated short to teach us, a subtle reminder about the power placement inherent in these two terms is beautifully and simply elucidated in this short.

The two terms have always been distinguished in my mind by power. The position of the giver and receiver of sympathy as opposed to empathy is quite different. I picture it as a gazing down at another versus a locking eyes with another.

Sympathy is synonymous to pity. Pity describes an emotion derived from a feeling of superiority, even though the intention of the pitier is to give relief and express care. More often than not, however, the pitied is treated as an object, one that makes another compelled to react as if the object of pity was drawing something from the onlooker. A person who suffers from whatever misfortune of accident or fate or foolishness, is, while in the throes of such misfortune, viewed as less than in some way, less than the one who is not suffering misfortune. The sympathizer distances him or herself from the misfortune and offers sympathy to the other, possibly feeling uncomfortable with the reminder of everyone’s vulnerability to life’s unexpected or expected cruelties.

My associations with the two words is not dispositive, however. Oxford Dictionaries defines sympathy as:

1Feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else’s misfortune:
they had great sympathy for the flood victims

1.1 (one’s sympathies) The formal expression of pity or sorrow for someone else’s misfortune; condolences:

2Understanding between people; common feeling:
the special sympathy between the two boys was obvious to all

And empathy as:

The ability to understand and share the feelings of another.

These two definitions are not very enlightening because the terms are defined equivalently; the Urban Dictionary is clearer as to empathy:

1. The ability to identify with and understand somebody else’s feelings or difficulties.

2. The transfer of somebody’s own feelings and emotions to an object such as a painting.

Where Oxford fails, Urban prevails. The clear distinction between the two terms is power–sympathizers judge:

Sympathy differs from empathy in the following ways:

With sympathy, the helper:

Helps within his/her comfort zone
Makes a cursory judgment of the person’s needs
Often will get upset when it is explicitly revealed that their help is misguided or unwelcome (after a long buildup)
May feel as if he or she is the ‘mentor’, or the ‘superior’

With empathy, the helper:

Relates to the person on a personal basis
Forms a deep emotional bond with the person on many levels
Learns to see the situation from the person’s perspective
Sees the person more as an equal, and ‘walks in their shoes’.

The two should not be confused. More often than not, sympathy is the form of ‘caring’ that is given to those in need, and can be quite misguided, especially in dire situations that most are not used to dealing with. Most therapists, teachers, and unfortunately parents will often give this kind of ‘help’ to a troubled or very upset person. However, if they were willing to step outside their comfort zones, they could learn how to relate effectively.

The two terms should not be conflated as each embodies not only a different emotion but different disposition all together. The importance of understanding the stance “the helper” takes may help the helper to understand what she is trying to do and what she is actually doing. In other words, by feeling someone else’s pain and not trying to solve it, the empathizer puts herself into the other’s skin, stands eye to eye with the one in need of empathy, and not above or at a distance. The subject-object relationship is extinguished, at least in that empathic moment.

Brene Brown in the short RSA talk and article referenced above, outlines the key features of empathy as the ability to see from behind someone else’s eyeballs, to be non-judgmental and to communicate knowledge of the person’s plight by reiterating her position back to her or encouraging the other to speak about it. It takes putting one’s own agenda and feelings aside–and lots of practice, daily.

Obsessive-Compulsive Narcissism


Two terms were hurtled at me this week, one from someone who knows me fairly well in terms of years and intimacy, and the other from one who doesn’t know me at all except through what others have said or written about me or by my blog. One term was compulsive and the other was narcissistic. One I was a little puzzled by and the other made me bristle a little, both reactions triggered most probably by my disposition toward the accusers. Both terms can be seen pejoratively or neutrally. Neither seemed flattering.

Upon hearing (or reading) that a friend thought me compulsive, my first reaction was “Really? Let me think about that because it does not resonate with me.” Then I thought about certain “compulsions” I have had like running marathons, collecting educational degrees, teaching 11 classes one semester, and reading nearly every book I could possibly read in 9 months about pregnancy when I was pregnant the first time.

Then there was the training or more aptly the studying my first marathon. When I planned to run my first marathon in 1992, the L.A. Marathon, I read everything I possibly could about training, form, schedules, journaling, and nutrition. I hit Galloway on schedules and form, Fixx on mental attitude and Higdon on shoes in Running Times and Runner’s World as well as countless books, including the Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. I read Brody on nutrition and a host of others who have ever taken to the pavement in running shoes. I read and trained for a year, from the very first step of running ever to the last step of the marathon.

When I was pregnant with my first child, I read all about schools of thought on labor and delivery from Spock to Lamaze to Bradley, physician-led births to laboring couple directed births. I read parenting books from Spock to Sears, two physicians from opposite ends of the spectrum, one advocating traditional AMA-endorsed practices and parental control/conditioning, the other advocating Attachment Parenting with child-led weaning from breastfeeding and family bed. Soon after my baby was born, sleep-deprived and shell shocked, I suffered advice–some of it was painful though I listened to it all with urgency and respect–from my mother and mother in law and other veteran moms who often advocated letting the baby cry it out (instead of picking her up) or scheduling the baby’s feedings (instead of feeding her each time she wanted).

But I was a La Leche League devotee and read everything on their and other breastfeeding websites that supported a philosophy of breastfeeding and letting the child decide when it was time to stop breastfeeding. I remember so many looking askance at my breastfeeding toddler, including those who would ask outright in obvious discomfort or barely contained disgust, “How long are you going to let her breast feed?” My smart ass reply was always, “Well, I don’t know of any college bound breast feeders…” And I ached too hard to hear my babies cry.

When my kids were growing up, I read every book mothers in mommy and me groups were recommending about behavior and parenting practices, including Raising Your Spirited Child and a book called Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child: The Heart of Parenting. When it came time to vaccinate, I read the AMA’s stance and unofficial websites of advocates of choice, citing the connection between autism and vaccinations, plugging anyone I encountered in park groups or toddler-focused activities, relatives and friends, for information and experience. I read. I asked. I listened. And I respected others’ ways of being a parent but, in the end, quietly followed my own learning and instinct. Still do, only now flying by the seat of my pants with teenagers.

But back then, I wanted to know it all. So maybe I was compulsive. Compulsive or obsessive?
Wanting accuracy and clarity about the word ‘compulsive,’ I went to the dictionary online and found the following:

adjective: compulsive
resulting from or relating to an irresistible urge, especially one that is against one’s conscious wishes.
“compulsive eating”
synonyms: irresistible, uncontrollable, compelling, overwhelming, urgent; obsessive
(of a person) acting as a result of an irresistible urge.
“a compulsive liar”
synonyms: inveterate, chronic, incorrigible, incurable, hardened, hopeless, persistent; obsessive, addicted, habitual; informal pathological
irresistibly interesting or exciting; compelling.
“this play is compulsive viewing”
synonyms: fascinating, compelling, gripping, riveting, engrossing, enthralling, captivating
“it’s compulsive viewing”
late 16th century (in the sense ‘compulsory’): from medieval Latin compulsivus, from compuls- ‘driven, forced,’ from the verb compellere (see compel). Sense 1 (originally a term in psychology) dates from the early 20th century.

Okay, so obsessive is a synonym for compulsive. Obsessive may fit. Still, I don’t think the definitions of compulsive apply, though I cop to two terms, one in the synonyms offered and one in the etymology at the end: persistent and driven. Those two terms seem true. While the drive to read everything–everything–I can about a subject may be obsessive, it is not unconsciously so nor uncontrollably so. The need to be not just informed but thoroughly informed may grow from insecurity, perfectionism or thirst. But I have never felt like I had to read everything, just wanted to. I love to read and learn as a teacher and student all my life.

Teaching 11 classes in one semester, insane as that was, did not derive from an addiction or unconscious desire to destroy myself, but from the need to test limits. If there is one tag line I can ascribe to, it would be to test limits when you can. Not that I am a huge risk taker, but I do like to see what the climate will bear in many situations. And I won’t consciously do something that I know will bring unnecessary suffering to me or my loved ones, or anyone for that matter. I am a mindful and conservative risk taker, at least for the majority of my days so far. On occasion, I have gone too far and risked too much.

However, I don’t believe as a general rule that when I am healthy and in my right mind I am overrun by habits and unconscious drives, though how am I to know? It’s hard to analyze the self accurately. I do battle with tobacco, an on again off again kind of fencing with a destructive force, but again it’s limits testing. I toy with the idea of controlling the poisonous intake by measured doses, a cigarette a day phase punctuated by long stretches, months sometimes, years sometimes, of not touching a cigarette. Then one day out of the blue I will smoke a half a pack. All right, I’m not sure who or which has the control: Am I playing with tobacco or is tobacco playing me?

Maybe I have a few compulsions, but am I narcissistic? The fact that I am writing about myself in a long-winded journal entry that I may possibly publish to a blog would indicate the truth of that accusation. The very act of writing–revealing the self–for others to mirror back in some fashion whether relating to or denying the author’s words may very well be narcissistic, if I think of the term as looking for mirrors. What does narcissistic mean?

adjective: narcissistic
having an excessive or erotic interest in oneself and one’s physical appearance.
“a narcissistic actress”
synonyms: vain, self-loving, self-admiring, self-absorbed, self-obsessed, conceited, self-centered, self-regarding, egotistic, egotistical, egoistic; informalfull of oneself
“she was never happy in the narcissistic life that her press agent and manager had crafted for her”
relating to narcissism.
“narcissistic personality disorder”

In writing about myself now am I excessively interested in myself? I have a blog, so does that count as excessive interest in the self? I guess it depends upon what I write about. If my blog were one that solely gave recipes or tips on how to get a house clean, I probably could not be accused of narcissism by the pure donative nature of the blog alone. However, my blog is not exclusively an open journal like some I have read, which are diaries of the day to day events in a life. Something in between, I say.

I don’t offer advice or tips, but gather others’ advice, experience and opinions. I offer what interests me in writing styles, art and ideas, in the hopes of providing readers enjoyment, inspiration or thought. There is no question I subscribe to some viewpoints that I push for like tolerance and compassion, and thus blog more about some subjects, i.e., labeling, than others.

On the question of the mistress in its most common or popular understanding, the woman on the side, not the expansive definition of whatever owns you or is owned by you–people, ideas, predispositions, traits, habits, desires, etc.–I simply provide all sides and viewpoints, or at least aim to do so.

The ‘mistress’ is a complicated affair and concept and makes us all focus on the nature of relationships as well as challenges our notions of fairness, honesty, ethics, love, suffering, marriage, children and sexuality. My experiences as a divorce lawyer, spouse, mistress and human permit me to offer and question the topic, which encompasses the deepest and highest of all that is human. That is why the topic interests me and hopefully interests readers.

When I teach college students how to write essays, particularly narratives of the self, identity pieces, I tell them above all to be charitable: to be generous, to give to and be considerate of the reader, to show not tell the reader what happened and who you are, show the reader what you did so the reader can decide for him or herself who you are, to write with the reader in mind so that every detail, every word is written for that reader. I tell them to ask, “Will my reader understand me given that the reader has never lived behind my eyeballs? Is this a journal entry written to myself for my own pleasure or do I have something to share with one human being from another, something that taps into the universal human need, concern or condition? That is the job of the writer: to share, to give.

Now, the writer (and I mean nothing more than someone who writes) may again sound narcissistic, egotistical, to think a writer is in a position to give anything to anyone else, but lived experience, anyone’s experience no matter what life that experience is derived from, is valuable to another by virtue of it being shared even if only to provide commiseration, understanding, connection and companionship, a momentary relief from aloneness, let alone insight or education.

Am I conceited, self-centered, self-loving, egotistical, and excessively interested in myself, erotically or otherwise? Sometimes, sure. Other times, I am under-appreciative, insecure, self-doubting, self-deprecating, self-defeating, and many other self-(supply destructive term of choice). It took me 54 years to let anyone read a poem I had written, so sure I was that it wasn’t good enough.

Am I narcissistic because I write an online blog and not in a locked journal? Some might say so. One did. Perhaps, I am. And so.

Is it compulsive to carry on about it for this long? Probably. But I will leave it to the professionals. According to one Dr. Sam Vaknin, who wrote Malignant Self Love on narcissists, in FAQ#30, “The Compulsive Acts of a Narcissist“, writing a blog post questioning others’ judgments does not appear in his list of behaviors. Certainly, the extreme familial, genetic, behavioral and environmental factors discussed in the article are inapt for my narcissist label.

Somehow, I suspect, however, if I read compulsively on the subject, I would find that I could be a compulsive narcissist or a narcissist with compulsive behaviors. But I’d much rather scour my Facebook page for cat videos.