Jennifer is 32, single, and generally unpopular among her peers. She likes to tell others what is best for them. Whether in the workplace or in casual conversation, she has an inability to put herself in others’ place, to understand how they feel – in short, to feel empathy. She simply can’t see things beyond her own perspective.
As an example, one day Jennifer saw three of her co-workers at a dress store in the mall. One of them, Jamie, has tried on a blue dress and is checking herself in the mirror. Jennifer blurts out, “Oh, God, Jamie, not blue and certainly not that that style. Makes you look pudgy, plus blue clashes with your skin tone.”
Irritated, Jamie says, “No one asked you, Jennifer. Blue is my favorite color and I’ve worn it all my life. As for pudgy, I don’t care what you think. I like the way I look in this dress, and I’m the one wearing it, not you! So, buzz off!”
When people think of empathy, and trying to see things from another’s perspective, they often think of sympathy. If you can understand how another person is feeling, you are more likely to feel sympathy toward them, and this feeling motivates you to help them. Maybe so, but in a coping context, empathy has a much broader meaning than simply feeling sorry for someone. When you use empathy to cope, you are acting with moral strength, an attribute that extends far beyond sympathy. Such strength allows you to respect others and value them as human beings; it allows you to see things from another perspective, even though that perspective might make you uncomfortable. Jennifer obviously has an empathy deficiency, a moral weakness.
Where might an empathy deficiency come from? Jennifer is a very angry person. She may have been mistreated early in life, or she may have had emotionally distant parents. As a result, she developed a working hypothesis: “People can’t be trusted with my emotions, so I must keep them at arm’s length or they will hurt me.” That hypothesis, of course, is self-fulfilling: Jennifer believes that people can’t be trusted, so she treats them in a way that makes them reject her. The hypothesis is also damaging to Jennifer because it prevents her from ever learning to be sensitive to emotional signals from others. No doubt, on many occasions, someone has reached out to her in a positive way, but all she sees is someone out to hurt her, criticize her, reject her. This misperception makes it difficult to cope with the inevitable stress Jennifer will feel in her social interactions.
I was talking with a woman acquaintance about this analysis of why some people insist on imposing their will on others. She obviously had another issue in mind because she gave a derisive laugh and commented, “Moral weakness? Reminds me of how I’m always fascinated at how men dictate to women about their health and well-being. There’s not a man alive who can say he knows what it’s like to have a woman’s body, what it feels like to be pregnant, and anticipate childbirth. Not one. No man alive can see those things from a woman’s perspective, understand her emotions, needs, and anxieties when she’s pregnant. And yet, men have no problem dictating to us what we should, or should not, do.”
I had never thought of empathy deficiency in the context this woman mentioned. But I think her comments about men imposing their will on women show how an insensitivity to social signals from others, how an inability to conduct constructive communication with others, and how failing to show empathy for others, is totally incompatible with effectively coping with stress.