Empathy can have the opposite of its intended effect

Is the focus on empathy as a ground zero for ethical and close relationships misguided? Can it produce more distance and less understanding of others? Can working to “be empathic” do damage to closeness?

In a new book, The Other Side of Empathy, author Jade E. Davis argues that we should be skeptical of the recent cultural focus on empathy and its accompanying strategies and methods. One of her main arguments is that empathy often presumes that we can truly know another person, and in particular, the specifics of their suffering.

This can “flatten” suffering by presuming to know how the other is truly feeling. Think of Bill Clinton’s “I feel your pain.” In worst cases, this can become patronizing, paternalistic, and even dismissive as it turns the other’s pain into something of your own (the listener). It can make it more about you, the listener, than those who are listened to, by relating their experience to something that has happened to you.

Davis continues that this is made worse by a culture that contains “empathy scripts” and expected “performances” of both suffering and empathic response. This can again flatten suffering because it can often presume to know what a suffering person looks like and how they should act and confess.

As she argues, however, many people who experience feelings or suffering do not act in conventional ways. An example could be the experience of relief or contentment after the death of a loved one. To someone wishing to practice empathy with a grieving friend, they might overlook or dismiss this positive feeling and try to reflect to them a presumed feeling of pain and grief.

An underlying assumption of “empathy culture,” Davis argues, is that it creates unrealistic expectations and norms around interpersonal and wider social relationships. Equipped with psycho-educational tools and language like “active listening,” “empathic reflection,” and “open questioning,” we feel that we can and ought to be able to successfully understand someone else. With all of these tools and general knowledge about neurotransmitters and neuroplasticity, how can we not close the gap between you and a partner, friend, or family member?

The danger of thinking that we can actually understand another human being means that if we cannot close the gap and become more connected means that there must be something wrong with the other person. This, for Davis, means the risk of rejecting or abjecting the other. If we believe that all we have to do is follow certain empathy scripts and we still don’t feel connected or close, then there must be something broken or stubborn in the other person.

We can often see the negative consequences of empathy scripts in couple’s therapy. Sometimes, when one partner in a couple expresses difficult and complicated emotions, the other partner will try to reach them and support them through what they understand as an empathic response. They may reach out a hand and say lovingly, “I understand how you feel.” Many times, however, this doesn’t produce a satisfying response because the suffering partner intuitively or emotionally doesn’t feel heard.

The empathic response can short-circuit the suffering partner’s clarity of experience by turning it into something too easily understood. They might think or say out loud: “How could you possibly understand what I’m feeling since you haven’t lived and experienced life in the exact way that I have experienced it?” This can be felt as a kind of dismissal of the singularity of the persons’ feelings and suffering, and ultimately, a feeling of non-recognition, which can unfortunately undo what may be real goodwill on the partner of the listening spouse.

Source: Psychology Today