Sympathy, Empathy, and Caring (Part Three of Three): False Empathy and Authentic Caring

Guest Post by Nina LaLumia

In a previous post, Jade criticised a video on the topic of empathy by Brené Brown. In the third and final part of this series, I aim to make clear in my own terms what’s helpful, and what’s misleading and even false, about what Brené Brown says.

In relation to ‘sympathy,’ the word ‘empathy’ is fairly new. It was introduced into English in the late 1800s and has recently grown in popularity, it seems to me, for two reasons. First, ‘sympathy’ lost the richness it had in Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature (1738) and has come to be equated with ‘pity.’ Indeed, today the word is most commonly used in “sympathy cards” that people send to comfort those who have lost a loved one. So another word is needed to play the broader role that ‘sympathy’ used to play.

Second, ‘empathy’ was used to introduce a concept and therapeutic technique in psychology. As such, it was a translation of the German word Einfühlung, which means “feeling oneself into something.” Here’s a quotation from The Journal of Clinical Psychology (1946): a person-to-person “regard for the client is characterised (ideally) by the understanding of empathy without the erratic quality of identification or the supportiveness of sympathy.”

The important thing to notice here is how ‘empathy’ is compared with ‘identification’ on the one hand and with ‘sympathy’ on the other. A therapist should not identify with the client or patient, since this would mean going along for the rollercoaster ride of the client’s emotions. If a person seeking therapy shares an experience of suffering, it won’t help if the therapist bursts into tears.

On the other hand, a therapist should NOT show “the supportiveness of sympathy.” A therapist should not express pity for the client or say things like, “Oh, you poor dear, I’m so sorry you had to go through that.” Also, a therapist should NOT show support for every goal the client aims for. Most obviously, if a client expresses the desire to kill someone, the therapist should not help the client work out a plan to commit murder.

So the idea behind ‘empathy’ as a term in clinical psychology is that the therapist should listen attentively and show that he or she has some understanding of what the client is going through. This is often done by echoing or by offering summaries, such as: “I can see that you were deeply hurt by that.” The goal is for the patient to feel: “Another human being has heard and is trying to understand what I’m feeling, what I’m going through, in a non-judgemental way; so I’m no longer alone in this.” This opens the door for trust, for further communication and eventually the working-out of a plan for coping with the situation as effectively as possible.

To some extent, Brené Brown successfully explains this therapeutic technique in her video on empathy. But her video is also misleading: it suggests that the best thing we can do is “feel ourselves into” the suffering of others. And this is false. Empathy as Brené Brown explains it might move us to react emotionally and, without any rational assessment, do whatever first comes to mind in order to alleviate the person’s suffering in the short term. To give an obvious example: If an alcoholic is suffering withdrawal symptoms, the best response is NOT to give them a bottle of vodka.

More generally, if we enable people to become dependent (or more dependent) on some drug or some other external source of support, we are not really helping them. Here’s another example: We are not really helping people who can work if we enable them to remain unemployed.

So empathy is not a reliable guide for authentic caring. We care for someone authentically when we lend what support we can to empower that person. As the great philosopher Maimonides said: “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” The general point is: Care authentically by helping people acquire the skills and resources they need in order to take of themselves and eventually contribute to the community in which they live. People who are successful at fishing catch enough fish to feed themselves and their families by selling fish for other people to eat. Authentic caring is good for the individual and good for the community. Authentic caring is also limited: we stop giving if giving any more will decrease our own power.

By contrast, reacting thoughtlessly out of false empathy may be bad in two ways. First, it is bad for people if we enable them to become dependent, for example, on welfare payments. It’s bad for them because we reduce their chances of experiencing the joy of living out of their own power and making a contribution. Second, enabling people to become dependent is bad for our society. If one more person becomes dependent, we lose the opportunity to benefit from that person’s contributions. Also, if one more person becomes dependent, we have to spend resources to support them—resources of wealth, time, energy and intelligence that could be better spent elsewhere.

Finally, a society that encourages its members to become more and more dependent is a sick society. It keeps losing potential contributors, and it keeps wasting its resources. Such a community grows more and more vulnerable to internal collapse and to external attack—to being overrun by healthier societies. A healthier society is made up of members who are better contributors because they live more fully out of their own power and because their lively sense of sympathy motivates them to care authentically.

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