Some people have a hard time understanding how others are feeling. Do you feel empathy for others when they suffer discomfort? If not, you’re not alone, but it’s kind of sad when you think about it. We humans are “social animals,” but if you can’t feel empathy for others, how can you be fully “social”? Is it reasonable to say that empathy is one of the most honorable expressions we can give to others because it fulfills our destiny as social beings?
“Well,” you might ask, “if empathy is so crucial to being human, why do I have a hard time with it? I don’t hate people, and I enjoy helping others, so what’s my problem?”
Where might an empathy deficiency come from? The answer can be complicated because it would depend on the particular experiences and genetic make-up of each individual. Bill might be un-empathetic for entirely different reasons than Sally.
Still, it is possible to come up with a general understanding of empathy deficiency if we think about empathy in a different way. That is, when you boil it down, empathy means you are sensitive to emotional signals from others.
Larry: “I’m glad to see that Roger is recovering nicely from Susan’s death.”
Declan: “Recovering nicely? Didn’t you see his face or hear his voice when you asked him how he’s doing? Yeh, he said, ‘Just fine; the kids and I are moving forward and we’re doing OK,’ – but that was bull. It’s three months since Susan died and the guy is just eaten up inside. He’s in bad shape and needs support. It’s all over his face and in his voice. I can see it and hear it. The guy is really hurting. I think we need to steer him toward some support group.”
Declan seems to “get it,” but Larry doesn’t. Declan picked up on some facial and voice cues that Larry didn’t. So, let’s re-phrase our question – “Where might an empathy deficiency come from?” – and ask, “How could a person develop an insensitivity to emotional social cues expressed by others?”
Note how this question doesn’t see an empathy deficiency as always meaning someone mean-spirited – a misanthrope who dislikes people and uses them for personal gain. That could be true for a particular individual, but seeing the deficit as an insensitivity to social cues makes the deficiency more of a perceptual problem for someone, not necessarily a character flaw or chronic indecency on their part. So, let’s ask, “What might be the origin of this perceptual handicap?”
Imagine being raised from birth in a home that is cold, rejecting, and full of criticism. Love and support are in short supply. In infancy, you learn that the world is not a trusting place – you can’t depend on others to satisfy your needs, especially your need for comfort, warmth, soft cuddling, and gentleness. During your preschool years the deprivation continues and you begin to feel some guilt (“What am I doing wrong?”). The guilt makes you develop fear of showing any initiative or independent action, believing that doing so will certainly result in abandonment by your parents.
As you grow older you have no idea how to give and receive love because you have never been taught such interactions. Any developmental mirroring that occurs in your early experience is limited to experiencing frustration, uncertainty, guilt, and rejection – never understanding, support, compassion, and affection. Furthermore, any thought of “giving yourself” to another in a context of love is threatening because it triggers guilt, fear of rejection, and your core fear of abandonment.
Empathy becomes a threat to your stability. If you try to understand how others are feeling you expose yourself to a situation in which you have no idea how to behave. Everyday emotional social cues – a smile, a laugh, a grimace, a cry – become aversive to you because you don’t know how to respond to them. You learn to avoid or ignore them.
If someone says with a smile, “You know, I really like you,” you are threatened because you don’t know what to say. Your cold upbringing did not prepare you for mutual caring and empathy. If a friend says, “I’m hurting ever since Gail dumped me,” you’re at a loss as to how to answer, how to offer solace, how to…empathize.
Social signals – whether positive like a smile or negative like a frown – frustrate you, make you angry, and foster conflict in your relationships with others, the very emotions and actions you have experienced from others in your upbringing.
Are you doomed for life? No. People and events in your past helped make you who you are, but – unless you choose it – you are seldom perpetually enslaved by your past.
Remember that statement: When you blame people from your past – parents, siblings, or other caregivers – for your adult problems, you are ignoring the fact that you are capable of making decisions to help you overcome the effects of a rocky childhood. Blaming your past says you believe you are entitled to special treatment because your childhood was tough. That’s not the way life works. Effective coping must always involve accountability on your part.
If your sense of entitlement, and your history of difficulty in assessing social signals lasts for years – for instance, well into adulthood – you may need professional psychological help to unravel the various threads your mind has woven over the years. Just remember, there’s no shame in seeking help. It’s the honorable thing to do, and, in fact, you empower yourself by doing so. On the other hand, if you obsess about yesterday as the cause of your troubles, how can you possibly be ready to cope with today’s challenges, much less tomorrow’s?
The bottom line? You can learn empathy; you can – with help – teach yourself to be sensitive to social cues; you can learn to become a more active participant in the social enterprise of being human. Like so many things in life that challenge you, it’s your choice.