Deconstructing Empathy

When we talk about deconstructing Empathy, there are a number of methods we can use. Lets look at a few before we get started.


One of them is rather technical and is focused in a more psychological understanding of Empath:

One site defines Empathy as: The action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner; also : the capacity for this.

Another site defines Empathy as: A sense of shared experience, including emotional and physical feelings, with someone or something other than oneself.

Because of these definitions, the gift of empathy spans several different areas of human intelligence: that of cognitive intelligence and emotional intelligence. And thus can be broken down into two different sections: cognitive and emotional empathy, which are defined as:

Emotional Empathy occurs when you feel physically along with the other person, as though their emotions were contagious. This kind of Empathy makes someone well-attuned to another person’s inner emotional world.

Cognitive Empathy is having a consciousness of the need to imaginatively put oneself in the place of others in order to genuinely understand them, which requires the consciousness of our egocentric tendency to identify truth with our immediate perceptions of long-standing thought or belief.

This can further be broken down into 6 different parts, which span both of the two types listed above:

Theory Of Mind is the ability to attribute mental states—beliefs, intents, desires, pretending, knowledge, etc.—to oneself and others and to understand that others have beliefs, desires and intentions that are different from one’s own. In a 2001 research paper, Simon Baron-Cohen describes Theory of Mind as “…being able to infer the full range of mental states (beliefs, desires, intentions, imagination, emotions, etc.) that cause action. In brief, having a theory of mind is to be able to reflect on the contents of one’s own and other’s minds.”

Perspective Taking is the ability to see things from a point of view other than one’s own. In this description, there are a number of different traits. The first is a person recognizing that the self and others can have different thoughts and feelings. The second is a person understanding that different perspectives may occur because individual people are privy to different information. The third is when a person can see through another person’s eyes and view their own thoughts, feelings, and behaviors from the other person’s perspective. They also recognize that others can do the same. The fourth is when a person can step away from a one on one situation and imagine how both parties are viewed from a third party perspective. And the last occurs when a person understands that third-party perspective taking can be manipulated by a system of cultural and/or social values.

Cognitive Empathy is having a consciousness of the need to imaginatively put oneself in the place of others in order to genuinely understand them, which requires the consciousness of our egocentric tendency to identify truth with our immediate perceptions of long-standing thought or belief. This trait correlates with the ability to reconstruct accurately the viewpoints and reasoning of others and to reason from premises, assumptions, and ideas other than our own. This trait also correlates with the willingness to remember occasions when we were wrong in the past despite an intense conviction that we were right, and with the ability to imagine our being similarly deceived in a case-at-hand.

Emotional Identification is defined as a heightened form of emotional contagion in which the another person’s emotions are taken as one’s own. Empathic identification is defined as the process to predict people’s behavior by using faculty of empathy.

True Empathy is basically another name for Emotional Empathy, in that it occurs when you feel physically along with the other person, as though their emotions were contagious. This kind of Empathy makes someone well-attuned to another person’s inner emotional world.

Emotional Contagion is the tendency to catch and feel emotions that are similar to and influenced by those of others. It is a process in which a person or group influences the emotions or behavior of another person or group through the conscious or unconscious induction of emotion states and behavioral attitudes.

The Empathic Process

This process can occur first at a cognitive level, where in theory of mind, perspective taking and cognitive empathy occur. Then it flows into the emotional realms where in emotional identification, true empathy, and emotional contagion occur. What this means is that you see, recognize, and process a specific incident that is presented to you, and then you identify with it emotionally and begin to feel empathy toward it (if it is appropriate).

Or it can happen in the opposite way, where in you are caught up in an emotionally charged moment, sharing the feelings of one or more people around you. Sometimes you immediately identify with another person’s feelings without conscious thought first through something called emotional contagion. And most times, when caught up in this effect, you only really give it conscious thought and cognitive reasoning later.

But no matter how it is broken down, it tends to utilize most, if not all, of the puzzle pieces listed above.

Another way to look at it is based on the premise of emotional energy and the ideas of projection, introjection, absorption, and transmutation:

Emotional Projection occurs when a person’s thoughts and/or emotions are ascribed onto another person or people. It can also be seen as a defense mechanism which occurs when a person’s own unacceptable or threatening feelings are repressed and then attributed to someone else.

Emotional Absorption occurs when one person takes in the emotional energy of another person. Depending on the person and their motivational intent, Emotional Absorption can act as a cloning mechanism or as an ability which steals away the emotional energy, leaving the other person without that emotion.

Emotional Introjection is an unconscious internalization of aspects of the world (especially aspects of persons) within the self in such a way that the internalized representation takes over the psychological functions of the external objects. It can also be defined as a psychological defense mechanism involving appropriation of an external happening and its assimilation by the personality, making it a part of the self. In basic terms, it means to take on the emotional traits of others. It can also be done physically, but we will leave that for another discussion.

Transmutation is the act of changing from one use or function or purpose to another. Emotional Energy Transmutation is the ability to assist in the transmutation of emotional energy within a single person or a group of people.

The Empathic Process

1. The Empath picks up on someone who has an issue or a problem, through the emotional energy they are expressing, even if they are not saying anything, because they are a highly tuned receiver of this type of energy. This is a form of absorption on the Empath’s part and projection on the other person’s part.

2. The Empath naturally reacts in a compassionate way, in order to set the person at ease in the Empath’s presence. This is a form of projection. And by copying their mannerisms, facial movements, hand gestures, posture, and what not, it also becomes a form of introjection, in that the Empath takes on the characteristics of the other person.

3. The Empath then sets about finding the cause of the negative emotional energy. And the person, sensing someone who is willing to listen and help, opens up and shares their issues or problems. This is again, the Empath projecting to the other person that they are interested in listening and willing to help. And the projection of the issue, verbally, by the other person.

4. And as the other person speaks, the Empath begins to connect the dots, in that the emotion connects with the issue or problem. Thus they begin to absorb the other person’s problems, emotional energy, and see through the other person’s eyes.

5. The Empath begins to identify with this issue as though it were their own, based on their own experiences that closely relate to the other person’s issue or problem, and help to find a resolution to the problem. And as they share this resolution, even if it is only calming words of comfort, emotional energy transmutation occurs, because the energy that was absorbed by the Empath is being transmuted into something much lighter, loving, and caring, which leaves the other person, if not with a resolution, then feeling like they are not alone and their feelings have been validated.


Now these ways of understanding Empathy may seem long, drawn out, and absolutely boring. Or you might find some value in understanding them. But neither way of describing the process is wrong, because its simply being viewed from different angles of perspective. One is based in psychology while the other is based in the idea of utilizing Emotional energy.

So now lets look at Empathy deconstructed in a different way, a simplified way ~ without all the detail work surrounding it.

Empathy can be broken down into three types:

  1. Cognitive Empathy: we recognize what another person is feeling
  2. Emotional Empathy: we actually feel what the person is feeling
  3. Compassionate Empathy: we want to help the person deal with their situation and emotions

In this process, Empathy is reduced to three types, which become a pattern of action. We recognize what someone feels, we feel what they feel, and then we feel the desire to offer help to that person.

Since we have a general idea of what the first two are, given the definitions offered above in the first deconstructive perspective of Empathy, we will focus instead on the last one; Compassionate Empathy.

Compassionate Empathy is basically something also known as Empathic Concern, which is defined as:

Human beings are strongly motivated to be connected to others. In humans and other higher mammals, an impulse to care for offspring is almost certainly genetically hard-wired, although modifiable by circumstance.

Empathic concern refers to other-oriented emotions elicited by and congruent with the perceived welfare of someone in need. These other-oriented emotions include feelings of tenderness, sympathy, compassion, soft-heartedness, and the like. Empathic concern is often and wrongly confused with empathy.

To empathize is to respond to another’s perceived emotional state by experiencing feeling of a similar sort. Empathic concern or sympathy not only include empathizing, but also entails having a positive regard or a non-fleeting concern for the other person.

Basically, what this states is the same as what we said about Compassionate Empathy. It involves showing concern for others and feeling a need to reach out to them in order to help them in some way. As well, this encompasses the other two types of recognizing another person’s pain and sharing in it along side them.

Often times, we can go through the motions of Cognitive Empathy and Emotional Empathy, without showing any Compassionate Empathy or Empathic Concern for others. In a way, we are often conditioned to be desensitized to the pain of others, in order to survive. And it can take going through issues, problems and traumas of our own to awaken us to the pain that resides in others.

That being said though, it doesn’t necessarily take this to show Empathic Concern/Compassionate Empathy toward other people. All it has to is a driving need to reach out to others that one acts on, instead of ignoring and/or subduing. And whether or not, this later becomes an instinctive reaction to others in need, it all begins with the choice to do it in the first place.

Can this act be instinctive? Sure. Can this act be conditioned into how we respond to people? Sure. And can this act be a natural reaction to others, that goes beyond instinct and conditioning? Yes. It can be one or the other, or it can be all of them at the same time. There is no real distinction to how one arrives at the point of showing Compassionate Empathy toward others. It is more to the point that they do show it toward others, instead of walking on by and ignoring that pull to reach out to another human being to help them in some way.

Does this say give till it hurts, though? Does this mean that you should allow Compassionate Empathy to override all other instincts within you? Is that even healthy to do? The answer to all of those is a resounding no. We give what we can when we can, and that is enough.

I found a great list which offers a way of handling Empathy, in order to sustain self preservation, as well as Compassionate Empathy. Lets look at it.

General Steps For Acting With Empathy

  1. Preserve dignity and avoid humiliation.
  2. Engage in a dialogue to understand his point of view and to determine his specific needs. Throughout the dialogue keep in mind:
    1. You can change some things but not others,
    2. What he asks for may not be what he needs. Continue the dialogue until you both understand his needs.
    3. Help to balance his impulses for immediate pleasures with opportunities for longer term gratification and authentic happiness.
    4. Every person always has needs for autonomy, competency, and relatedness but is unlikely to express these. This may lead to an ambivalence about change.
  3. Provide assistance to meet his needs to the extent you are willing and able to. Keep in mind:
    1. You are responsible for your choices and actions.
    2. He is responsible for his choices and actions.
    3. You can change some things but not others.


The following video is described thusly:

In this talk His Holiness turns to one of his favorite themes: the importance of compassion. Far from being a uniquely Buddhist concern, the Dalai Lama explains why caring for others can be the basis for a rich and rewarding life for all people. Whether one is a Buddhist or not, whether one is religious or not, a concern for the welfare of others is just good common sense. Compassion changes egotism into empathy, and transforms fear into freedom. It is the basis for both personal and communal peace.

His Holiness the XIV Dalai Lama: Ethics For Our Time

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~ by Misuchi Sakurai on February 14, 2010.

One Response to “Deconstructing Empathy”

  1. I am just now learning about my empathic ability and I am 50 it has been so draining most of my life….it is like negative energy is attracted to me…

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