The two sides of Empathy


Empathy is considered to be an overwhelmingly positive attribute. It is associated with kindness, compassion and social cohesion. Kids with empathetic parents have well-documented advantages: less depression, less aggression, more empathy themselves.

Most psychologists would argue that empathy is a learned behavior rather than an inherent quality. Much like language, there is a threshold for assimilating empathy. Children who aren’t shown empathy are less able to feel it as adults.

Many are of the opinion that emotional intelligence is a greater determiner of life long happiness than IQ. The importance of EI has influenced parenting over the years. Parenting has become less authoritarian and more empathetic and emotionally responsive than ever. Although millennial’s tend to get a bad rap there has arguably never been a more tolerant and inclusive generation. Could this be in part, down to the more liberal parenting styles they grew up with?

On the more extreme end of the liberal parenting spectrum, radical unschoolers, advocate implementing democratic processes in all areas of family life seeking mutually beneficial solutions for points of conflict such as bedtimes, mealtimes, schoolwork and recreation. Within such perspectives, bad behavior is re-framed as sensory overwhelm and the result of unmet, un-articulated needs. For radical unschoolers, even punishment and rewards are seen as coercive and any positive behavior which results from them superficial.

However unconventional, these, empathy based  communication strategies seem to be effective in deescalating potentially confrontational situations and making space for dialogue.  Indeed, non violent communication techniques based on similar ideology have been successfully used by NVC pioneer Marshall Rosenburg to mediate between feuding street gangs, high security prisoners and even warring African tribes. Rosenberg maintained that if unmet,  needs could be articulated, empathized with and met, there would be no escalation into violent conflict.

The articulation of needs and the need to be understood, heard and seen is equated with value. In our market based system, value is essential to survival and therefore effects our biological systems as individuals. Studies have shown that those of higher social status (value) have healthier immune systems and higher levels of the “happy chemical” serotonin.

Empathy is the human being’s way of understanding, seeing and hearing another. To feel heard, seen and understood is so powerful that how accurately one person’s feeling can be understood by another is inconsequential to it’s effect. The effect of someone besides ourselves taking time to attempt to understand our needs and emotions is profoundly healing and empowering.

As the philosopher Simone Weil said, “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.”

Projects such as Story Corp and Humans of New York, have  given platform to people from a diversity of backgrounds to tell their own story in their own words. From the thousands of comments garnered from their Facebook posts and videos it is clear to see that such stories illicit an empathetic response their readers/ listeners. This has lead to spontaneous acts of charity which have profoundly effected peoples lives. It has founded a sense of community which has connected people across the world. And perhaps, most importantly, given us who follow them the ability to see the real human beings behind their social persona or political ideology.

Sadly, there are few opportunities for people to define the narrative threads of their lives, let alone articulate them. We live in a world where people feel invisible. There are no village tribes where everyone knows everyone and their cousin, just a vast, un-chartable global village full of anonymous avatars. Where once an individual could become the best farmer/baker/blacksmith/artist/musician/healer, in their locale, they are now simply another cog in a disaffected, utilitarian machine. Human’s are social and narrative beings. We need stories. Stories cultivate meaning and meaning is manna for the human spirit.

Empathy is the ability to see through the eyes of the soul into the soul of another. It is a faculty all of it’s own. It allows the other person to feel seen and heard and thus defined, alive, existent and valued.

So empathy is important to both individuals and society as a whole but does it have a dark side? Well, as the mage in training Sparrowhawk in Ursula le Guin’s Earthsea quartet plainly states, “To light a candle is to cast a shadow…”

Due to absorbing the full range of others emotions empaths can suffer emotional, psychological and even physical problems. Indeed, one study indicates that overly empathetic parents can suffer inflammatory immune responses.

Overly anxious parenting can be a result of parents attempts to compensate for  feeling disconnected from their children for much of the day. Due to longer working hours, lack of provision for maternity leave, the fragmentation of extended family networks, the normalization of two income families and cuts to public services which impact young families many mothers are forced to leave their tiny infants in daycare only weeks after giving birth.  It makes sense, if parents only get a couple of hours with their children each day they might be reluctant to use that precious time to deliver discipline. “Permissive parenting” could just be the result of a system that prioritizes expedient economic returns over the complex, long-term returns of healthy familial relationships.

People are working longer hours as wages haven’t kept up with inflation. Jobs are less secure and in order to compete in an environment which has been designed to meet the needs of objective markets rather than subjective human beings. Exhausted  parents are outsourcing and over structuring much of their children’s time. Extra curricular, classes, sports teams, dance shows, enrichment camps etc… create “safe” but unnatural social environments for children to navigate and grow in. Too much scheduled activity also doesn’t allow enough downtime  for kids or adults to process emotion, think critically or develop creativity.

In the book, The Coddling of the American Mind, by  Greg Lukianoff and Jonathon Haidt argue that resilience is the result of exposure to moderate, well timed stressors. Studies have shown that grit and resilience are a better indicator of long-term success than IQ.

“teaching kids that failures, insults, and painful experiences will do lasting damage is harmful in and of itself. Human beings need physical and mental challenges and stressors or we deteriorate.” Greg Lukianoff

Empathy nurtures empathy but could too much empathy impede the development of grit and resilience?

One reason why it is essential for children to grow up with both significant male and female role models is because women are generally more predisposed to empathy whereas men are generally more predisposed to use discipline with their children.

The likely success or failure of either discipline or empathy is ultimately rooted in motivation.

As psychologist Jordan Peterson states ““You can’t protect your childrenyou can only make them strong“.

A child may behave in a manner which results in negative, natural consequences.  We’ve all heard a wailing child in a restaurant or cinema and felt the rising anxiety of the parent who tries to calm the cries with promises of candy or toys. We’ve also probably heard the weary tears of a crying child who is ignored or yelled at for their grief and felt the urge to take it upon ourselves to offer the longed for comfort.

For most parents it can be all too easy to appease a child and do whatever it takes to minimize their suffering regardless for the reason for that suffering.

When a child is very young, it is important to buffer the natural consequences of their actions until they have the developmental capacity to fully understand them. Culpability parallels judgement as conscience parallels consciousness.

To develop keen judgment requires discipline, to develop sound conscience requires empathy. Empathy is an important parenting tool. It shifts  a child’s reactive response to adversity from the emotional limbic system to the higher executive functions of the brain where reason can begin to tackle the situation rationally.

But as with most things, it’s effectiveness, as our children grow comes down to motivation.

Empathizing hurts. But as our children reach young adulthood it is important for them to begin to take responsibility for many of the choices they make. To become an emotional buffer for all consequences in order to alleviate suffering in both the parent themselves and their child is not rooted in compassion or courage but selfishness and cowardice. It may neutralize negative feelings borne of negative consequences in the short term but  can render a child impotent and unable to deal with life’s challenges in the long term.

Whether empathy yields positive or negative results will likely be determined by whether action is taken to alleviate another’s suffering for sincere, compassionate reasons or whether it is taken to alleviate our own guilt.

It is an important thing to determine because in such a politically polarized world, cultivating genuine empathy and teaching our children to do the same is more essential than ever.


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