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America's Continuing Empathy Deficit Disorder

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It's possible for an entire culture to develop shared forms of mental disturbance. As socially shared pathologies increase, they can be difficult to recognize; they become the norm. Such is the case today, and a prime example is what I call our national Empathy Deficit Disorder, or EDD.

I made the name up, so don't go looking for it in the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Actually, I'm hesitant to suggest a new disorder, given that our mental health professions increasingly define normal variations of mood and temperament as new "disorders" (for which Big Pharma is ready to supply "treatments"). But this one's real. It's become pervasive throughout our increasingly polarized social and political culture of the past several years.

EDD has profound consequences for the mental health of individuals and society. Yet it's ignored as a psychological disturbance by most of my colleagues in the mental health professions, largely because it's become the norm throughout our emotional attitudes, public policies and behavior.

First, some explanation of what I mean by EDD: It's reflected in being unable to step outside yourself and tune in to what other people experience, especially those who feel, think and believe differently from yourself. EDD is a source of personal conflicts, of communication breakdown in intimate relationships, and of adversarial attitudes - including hatred - towards groups of people who differ in their beliefs, traditions, values or ways of life from your own.

Take the man who told me that his wife always complained that he didn't spend enough time with their children; that she had most of the burden despite having a career of her own. "Yeah, I see her point," he said in a neutral voice, "but I need time for my sports activities on the weekends. I'm not going to give that up. And at night I'm tired, I want to veg out." As we talked further, it became clear to me that he simply didn't experience what his wife's world was like for her, on the inside. His own reality -- specifically, his own needs -- were his only reality.

Or the computer executive who prided himself on having a stable family life, then casually told me that, even though he recognized the environmental threats posed by worldwide climate change, he couldn't care less. "I'll be long gone when New York is under water," he said. And when I asked him whether he cared about the consequences for his kids or grandkids, he replied with a grin: "Hey, that's their problem!"

Then there's the woman who works in the financial industry, who told me she's indifferent to how American Muslims might feel in today's environment, or to being profiled when boarding airplanes: "I think they're all terrorists," she said, "and would like to kill us all, anyway."

These may sound like extreme examples, but I hear variations of those themes all the time in the people I work with -- whether in my psychotherapy practice or my business consulting. You can see examples yourself in the statements of politicians or pundits on talk shows.

EDD reflects being locked inside a self-centered world, a breeding ground for emotional isolation, disconnection and polarization. That's highly dangerous in today's interconnected, globalized world, and it plays out in ways both small and large:

For example, in troubled intimate relationships, when partners become locked into adversarial and oppositional positions. It's visible in warfare between groups with different beliefs. And in the current polarization over political and social issues, including questioning people's "patriotism" when their views threaten one's own; and in opposition to policies that might require some personal sacrifice for the common good.

EDD is also visible in current global threats -- Tribal and religious groups killing each other. Palestinians and Israelis locked into an endless death-grip. Man-made climate disasters, and the continued, greed-fueled depletion of the resources and health of the only planet we have.

Empathy vs. Sympathy
To clarify, empathy is different from sympathy. Sympathy reflects understanding another person's situation - but viewed through your own lens. That is, it's based on your version of what the other person is dealing with. ("Yeah, I can sympathize with your problem with your elderly mother, because I have my own problems with mine ..."). A narcissist can be sympathetic in this way.

Such a self-centered focus is similar to what some people think love is when they're really enthralled with their own feeling of being "in love," rather than loving the reality of who their partner is, as I wrote about in a previous post.

In contrast, empathy is what you feel only when you can step outside of yourself and enter the internal world of the other person. There -- but without abandoning or losing your own perspective -- you can experience the other's emotions, conflicts, or aspirations from within the vantage point of that person's world. That's not telepathy. Research shows that it's a hard-wired capacity in all of us. And that kind of connection builds healthy, mutual relationships -- an essential part of mental health.

How Do You Develop EDD?
Most people are socially conditioned into believing that acquiring and achieving things are "normal" -- even "healthy" -- ways to live. EDD grows when people focus too much on acquiring power, status, and money for themselves, usually with the reinforcement of the larger culture. Nearly every day we hear or read about more extreme examples of the consequences: People who go over the edge in their pursuit of money, power or recognition, and end up resigning their jobs, in rehab or behind bars.

But there are many, less extreme, examples. People who struggle with the impact of too much emphasis on acquiring, both things and people, and have equated that with mental health, success and maturity. In reality, that mentality promotes increasing vanity and self-importance. Then, you become increasingly alienated from your own heart. You equate what you have with who you are.

And that's a killer for empathy, because you're now ripe for the delusion that you're completely independent and self-sufficient. You lose touch with the true reality, that all humans are interconnected and interdependent - all organs of the same body, so to speak. Your sense of being a part of a larger interwoven network - which is absolutely necessary for survival in today's world - fades away. So does your awareness that we have to sink or swim together, help each other, and sustain the planet we inhabit - or else we're all in deep trouble.

The net result of this social conditioning is the decline of empathy and a failure to recognize that we're all one, bound together. You only see yourself. And I think that's a bona fide emotional disorder in our times -- in effect, a "social psychosis."

Sometimes, a person's sudden awakening of interconnection jump-starts their empathy. Then, people automatically respond from the heart. For example, look at the response of citizens to the massive earthquake in Haiti, or to Hurricane Katrina. Or what I witnessed recently when some passers-by stopped to help the victims of an auto accident.

When empathy is aroused, you let go of your usual self-interest. You want to help; connect in some way. I often suggest to people to think of this, as an example: When you cut your finger, you don't say, "That's my finger's problem, not mine." Nor do you do a cost-benefit policy analysis before deciding whether to take action. You respond immediately because you feel the pain. It's part of you.

Practices That Build Empathy
Research shows that the capacity to feel what another person feels is "hard-wired" through what are called "mirror neurons." Regions of the brain involving both emotions and physical sensations light up in someone who observes or becomes aware of another person's pain or distress. Literally, you do feel another's pain or other emotions. Similar research shows that generosity and altruistic behavior light up pleasure centers of the brain usually associated with food or sex.

Research also shows that your brain is capable of being trained and physically modified through conscious practices, known as neuroplasticity. You can "grow" specific emotions and create new brain patterns that reinforce them. As you redirect and refocus your thoughts, feelings, and behavior in the direction you desire, the brain regions associated with them are reinforced. The result is a self-reinforcing loop between your conscious attitudes, your emotions, behavior and your brain activity. This may sound like science fiction, yet such studies show that you can learn to "reprogram" your brain. In effect, what you think and feel is what you become.

Jeremy Rifkin's recent book, The Empathic Civilization, provides a strong argument for an emerging empathic civilization in human consciousness. He presents evidence that counters the usual assumption that self-interest and greed are dominant forces among humans. In light of all the new research and evidence, here are a few practices you can do to help overcome your EDD in everyday life:

Empathy For Someone You Dislike:
It's especially challenging to generate empathy towards someone you flat-out dislike -- maybe even hate. Or, with whom you've had big-time conflicts: perhaps an ex-spouse, or someone at work. But you can try this:

  • Tell yourself how or why that person might have developed negative attitudes or feelings about you. Imagine what the conflict feels like from within his or her perspective. Entertain the idea that you are only partially right; perhaps wrong altogether.
  • Next, open yourself to seeing yourself through the eyes of that person. Just observe, without judging him or her, defending yourself, or agreeing with any of it.
Empathy For Strangers You Encounter

You can expand your capacity for empathy by practicing it towards people you don't even know:

  • Identify a situation or encounter with someone who's a stranger, especially one who may be very different from yourself. Try putting yourself within the consciousness of that stranger. The checkout person at the grocery store could be an example.
  • Think of ways that he or she is probably like you -- someone who desires love, who's probably experienced some kind of loss or disappointment along the way, or who has aspirations he or she hopes to fulfill.
  • Focus on those commonalities that show you how this person is much like yourself -- beneath the surface differences.
Empathy For People From Foreign Cultures Or Whose Way Of Life Is Alien To Your Own
  • Establish a direct personal connection with someone through a charity that links you with a specific recipient of your contribution (e.g., Alternative Gifts International or World Vision's Must Have Gifts); or a microfinance organization that provides small business loans to specific individuals in developing countries who cannot otherwise qualify (e.g. Kiva; Microplace)

Empathy Fuels Greater Mental Health
By developing empathy you deepen your understanding and acceptance of how and why people do what they do, and build greater respect for others. From empathy, tolerance grows, and tolerance of differences is an essential part of psychological health. This doesn't mean whitewashing differences you have with other people, or letting others walk over you. Rather, empathy gives you a stronger, wiser base for resolving conflicts when you have them. You're able to bridge differences more effectively and with less destructiveness.

Empathy heightens awareness of commonality and connection with fellow humans -- people who suffer and struggle with life in many of the same ways you do. It trumps self-centered, knee-jerk reactions to surface differences like religion, race, or ideology. That's a path towards a healthy life and a healthy society.

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