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

Guest Post by Nina LaLumia

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. 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.

Sympathy, Empathy, and Caring (Part 1 of 3): A Proper Understanding of Sympathy

Guest Post by Nina LaLumia

 

A family of words and their history

The word ‘sympathy’ has its roots in Ancient Greek. The prefix sym- means “with” or “together,” as in sym-phony: a collection that makes sounds together, producing harmony or music. Pathy refers to suffering or undergoing something and being affected emotionally. Think of pathology: the study of things that people suffer: diseases. So at root, sympathy is being affected by the condition of another living being with an emotion that corresponds to that being’s condition—or at least to our perception of it. Use of this word with this meaning in English goes back as far as the 1600s. In 1757, Edmund Burke wrote: “Sympathy must be considered as a sort of substitution, by which we are put into the place of another man, and affected in a good measure as he is affected.”

Everyone is familiar with the difference between being active and being passive: it’s the difference between your doing something and having something done to you. The nouns are ‘agent’ (a person who does something) and ‘patient’ (a person to whom something happens). There are also the abstract nouns ‘action’ and ‘passion’ (making something happen and having something happen to you). Similarly, we can affect things or be affected by them.

To fall in love is a passionate affair: something happens to you—something that can be wonderful and also painful. To feel affection for someone is also to be affected—to open the door and allow things to come in. If I open the door and allow myself to feel affection for Laura, Laura now matters to me in a new way. I’m now open (and vulnerable as well) to being affected emotionally by what Laura says and does, and to being affected by what happens to her. If something good happens in Laura’s life, I feel good about it; if something bad happens, I feel bad about it—it’s painful for me.

The philosophical theory of David Hume (1711-76)

In A Treatise of Human Nature, David Hume defines sympathy as the capacity to be affected emotionally by what happens to a person for whom we feel affection—both the good and the bad. Hume was studying the mind (doing psychology) from the modern scientific point of view. So for him, sympathy is not some magical affinity or “energy.” It happens through the subconscious observation of facial expressions, tone of voice, gesture and posture. In other words, sympathy happens through the medium of non-verbal communication. (I use the word ‘subconscious’ to suggest that these observations are below the surface of conscious awareness. We can notice them if we make the effort, but usually we don’t. Usually, we simply feel their effect.)

Sympathy of this kind is mainly interpersonal and face-to-face, and it requires that the two people involved already have a personal connection. But we can also feel sympathy through other media. (‘Media’ is the plural of ‘medium.’ We use the expression ‘the media’ to talk about the various ways or means by which we send messages.) Hume talks about the theatre; we could also talk about movies, works of fiction or poetry.

When you watch a scary movie, the normal thing to happen is that you yourself feel scared. Something is off (either with you or the movie) if you sit there unaffected, thinking something like, “Oh, if I were in that situation, I too would be scared,” or “I can understand why a person in that situation would feel fear.” There’s also something off if you don’t feel happy when Julia Roberts smiles. (If you don’t like Julia Roberts, think of someone whose smile you do find appealing.)

Whether it’s a good feeling or a bad one, happy or sad, we catch on to what someone else is feeling (or what they represent themselves as feeling) much more easily if we already have some sense of connection with him or her. And usually we develop a sense of connection with another person if they are appealing: if they appeal to us either because of their visible beauty or some beautiful character trait—their sense of humour, their courage, their loyalty as a friend, or something like that. So also, an artist has to create that sense of connection if we are to be moved by what happens to a fictional character in a movie or novel.

The last thing to be said here, so that we have a fair sketch of the whole picture, is that in general sympathy is not merely an emotional experience; it also moves us to do something. For example, adverts for charities that show children with dirty, tear-stained faces appeal to our sympathy and are designed so that we will be moved to donate some of our money. This kind of emotional response to the suffering of another living being is sometimes called “pity.”

This is usually what people nowadays think about when they hear the word ‘sympathy.’ But in the fuller picture that Hume offers, we can also be moved by good feelings. For example, if we feel affection for someone, we are usually moved to do good things for them: for example, to help them achieve their goals or to give them things they find pleasant.

The next two posts will discuss two aspects of sympathy in more detail. First, it is social and can be studied from a biological perspective—that is, it serves a function in relationships between people and in relationships between other social animals. Second, it is meant to move us—not only “move” us emotionally, but also literally move us to do something. What it should move us to do is to care authentically.