Is your empathy switch on or off?

Njeri Mathu “It’s the hardest thing in the world to go on being aware of someone else’s pain.” ~ Pat Barker “I do not ask the wounded person how he

  • PublishedOctober 10, 2013

Njeri Mathu

It’s the hardest thing in the world to go on being aware of someone else’s pain.”

~ Pat Barker

“I do not ask the wounded person how he feels, I myself becomes the wounded person.”

~ Walt Whitman, Song of Myself

Sam Vaknin is an Israeli author and publisher, anextremely intelligent man who currently serves as editor-in- chief of the online publication ‘Global Politician’. He also writes and speaks about narcissistic personality disorder. And while he is a self-described narcissist he also meets the criteria for psychopathy. Amongst the various behavioral traits Sam displays (such as perceptions of grandiose sense of self-importance, a need for constant admiration and obsessive fantasies of unlimited success, power and brilliance), lies his lack of empathy. In other words, his inability to put himself into the mental shoes of another person in order to understand their emotions and feelings.

As Sam describes it:

“I am aware of the fact that others have emotions, needs, preferences, and priorities – but I simply can’t seem to ‘get it into my mind’. There is an invisible partition behind which I watch the rest of Mankind and through which nothing that is human can permeate. I empathize more with my goldfish than with my ‘nearest and dearest’. To me, all people are cardboard cutouts, sophisticated motor contraptions, ersatz and robotic. I know how I should feel because I am well read–but I cannot seem to bring myself to emote and to sympathize. I care more about my material possessions and belongings than [almost] any man or woman alive.”

Many miles away from Sam, Mary, a 53-year-old therapist living in the U.K. faces a very different dilemma. Like Sam her ability to empathize is a little skewed. Unlike Sam her problem lies in having too much empathy. Because not only is she very sensitive to other people’s feelings and emotional states, she also experiences the pain, or pleasure, felt by other people. In neurological circles, Mary is known as a mirror-touch synaesthete. She literally feels what other people feel.

As Mary describes it:

“If I see pain inflicted, I feel pain myself. If I see gentleness in a touch of a hand, I get pleasure from the softness and love I can feel in that touch.”

As you can imagine, both Sam and Mary experience various upsides and downsides of their respective conditions. Mary’s life, depending on her social environment, may entail an excessive amount of pain, carrying the physical and emotional burdens of those surrounding her even if the experiences aren’t real: “I hate it when my husband watches violent movies…I cannot watch them, because I feel overloaded,” she says. With no such attachments Sam is not only encumbered by other’s anxiety, guilt and pain, he can also breeze through situations where logic and rationale decision-making skills are an asset.

On the flip side of the coin, more pain is accompanied by more warmth and positive experiences, such as the subtle power of human touch, or the joyous embrace of a hug. Mary can form inherently strong connections with other people, allowing her to experience a full, socially rich life.

Though Sam’s life maybe simpler, the disconnection and isolation could be emotionally overwhelming if not devastating; after all, he still has his own emotions to deal with. Who would you rather be? The hyper-sensitive empath or the hyper-rationale psychopath?

I think I can safely assume that for most of you this is a no brainer; the idea of feeling another’s physical and emotional pain beats the potentially utter loneliness one would experience living life devoid of real human connections. But while the ability to empathize with each other feels like an essential part of being human, at what point does empathy become self-destructive? Why is it that we can easily feel someone’s emotional pain, yet not care at all about others?

Do people like Mary really experience physical pain, or is it an excessive amount of emotion causing physical sensations in her body? As for Sam, he clearly understands what empathy is, but is it that he lacks the ability to experience it or simply fails to turn his empathy ‘switch’ on? And if he could turn that switch on, what would be the right level of empathy to operate on, the middle ground between caring too much, thereby carrying heavy burdens, and not caring at all? Finally, if it turns out that he can turn his empathy switch on and off, does that mean that empathy can be taught?

Phew, those are indeed a whole lot of questions, which I’m certainly not going to attempt to answer all at once.

If you read my article last month (you can find it at: www.parentsafrica.com), you may recall my deconstruction of pain, where I talked about the difference between the signaling of pain (your body recognizing that it’s under attack and setting of the alarm bells) and the experience of pain (the sharp sting you feel or the aching muscle). Understanding one’s own experience of pain is already terribly complicated, but then we have to go through all the trouble of understanding someone else’s?

If you think about it, the ability to feel someone else’s emotional and physical experiences isn’t all that helpful to either of us; what good am I to you if I’m wailing about a headache just as you are? Sure, the fact that I can feel the sensations, your experience does enable me to understand what

you are going through, and likely facilitates a deeper connection between us. However, two people writhing around in pain is worse than one person writhing in pain; with neither being able to help the other we may find ourselves stuck. In pain. But apparently Mother Nature makes very few, if any, glitches so there must be some rhyme to her reasoning.

So it is that we have the innate capacity to recognize and understand each other’s experiences and emotions, to view things from someone else’s perspective, to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes. We are much more connected to others than we consciously are aware of, living in constant affective resonance with our social environment, representing the feelings and needs of others in terms of our own. Those of us who aren’t able to do so are labeled as freaks of nature, mentally ill (psychopaths, narcissists) or biologically wired incorrectly (autistic children).

Yet, as science begins to decode the phenomenon that is empathy, we’re also finding that this natural capacity for empathic resonance can easily be blocked – not just in psychopaths – but also in all of us. That’s right, we may distinguish ourselves from the likes of Sam, but in reality many of us can

relate to his experience, whether we’re aware of it or not. Being the fickle, fully conscious and self-aware species that we are, we can choose to override many of our innate tendencies; we can choose to switch off the empathy light, simply because we think someone was acting unfairly or does not belong to ‘our tribe’.

I find this fascinating but scary, provoking hope for more caring societies, while instilling a sense of hopelessness because at some point and at some level, we all fail to turn the empathy switch on, we all choose to forgo connection and understanding of the other. After all, we are hard wired for self-preservation. Yet if we’re wired to put ourselves first, why is it that this empathy light shines so brightly in some? Why is it that we desire compassion and understanding so deeply that a life lacking this is, or feels, torturous?

I’ll leave you with a thought, an exercise, a piece of homework, perhaps. In order for me to delve deeper into empathy I’m first going to try becoming more aware of my standing on the empathy scale. I’m going to focus on being more aware of when, how and why I empathize with others over the next three weeks. And I’ll report my findings, however disturbing or embarrassing they may be in this column next month.

I’d like to invite you to join me on this adventure, to dare to see yourself as you experience others. You say you care and feel for others, but do you really? Or do you fancy yourself as impenetrable, yet in actuality are walking around carrying other people’s burdens? You likely find it easier to imagine yourself in some people’s shoes, but why? Is it that you can’t imagine yourself in others, or that it’s too much of a bother?

As I said, fascinating but scary.

Wishing you the best of luck combined with plenty doses of courage

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