the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.
Growing up in liberalized India in the early 90’s with new found prosperity, a family dynamic began to develop at my home. As soon as my brother and I were old enough to hold a conversation, my mother found something which she had been desperately seeking for the longest time; an ear. The conversations followed a typical narrative around her favorite subject, my father, and his inconsiderate and authoritative ways.
We would sit at the dining table and she would begin venting in his presence. The narrative was always around his lack of understanding of the subtleties of social etiquettes and his inability to handle sensitive situations with tact. Of course, my father, in his defense continues to (till date) point out that at least he is more evolved than his father ever was.😊
Logically, my mom’s case had merit. My dad, in all our eyes, did put his needs above all else and all our efforts began to circle around reforming him into the perfect ideal of what a new age man should be. Of course, the only person who ever got reformed in that process wasn’t him but me. And this is my case against empathy.
Recently, I came across the work of Yale Psychologist Paul Bloom, which finally opened, up my eyes to something that I had felt for the longest time but never quite articulated. In his book, Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion, Bloom writes about the perils of empathy and why too much of it can be just as bad as none of it.
1 – You are probably empathizing with the wrong person/ group
It’s extremely tempting to empathize with people or causes closest to us when our emotional energies could have have been diverted towards more deserving endeavors. it becomes a case of think local act local where your context heavily determines who you empathize with. We end empathizing with those who are close to us or whose reciprocal affection we crave. This can lead to an “empathy bias” towards a person/community/cause for our own selfish co-dependent needs. Bloom observes that we are more likely to be selectively empathic to attractive people (I can totally relate with this point from personal experience 😃). Those hunger-stricken people in Africa? What about them?
2 – Empathy immobilizes
Decision-making is a game of trade-offs. It’s about arbitrarily choosing one value or consequence over another and there are going to be the haves and the haves not as a result. Empathy will stop you from making decisions where there is bound to be a collateral damage. Can you fathom the possibility of a Buddhist monk in a senior leadership role at the Pentagon ? In the eyes of an empath, oneness prevails and presides over everything around us. Any attempt to shake things up is sure to cause feelings of discomfort and pain which the empath is sure to echo from being in touch with their surrounding. So the best decision for the empath turns out to be no decision at all.
I recently began to realize how the empathic badge of honor that I had been carrying since my early childhood as a reaction to my father’s more traditional, authoritative ways was hindering my professional growth. I would find myself, not being able to hold my subordinates accountable once they had “opened up” to me. My guess is that overly empathic leaders are not to be trusted in decision making positions as their judgment is sure to be clouded by concern for those who are going to be disadvantaged because of it. Truman would have never deployed atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and Bush would have never invaded Iraq.
3 – Empathy can lead to co-dependent relationships
How many times have you come across articles and blogs on the unhealthy relationship dynamic between a narcissist and an empath in the psychology/ spirituality space? Psychology Today, for one is littered with blogs on why empaths are equally responsible for enabling emotional abuse from their narcissist partner. Without strong personal boundaries, an empath depletes their own energies and this can lead to exhaustion. As with the instructions in a flight cabin, put your own mask before assisting others.
I find it especially hilarious when people buy into the whole “Soul Mate” or “Twin Flame” ideology and enable months and years of psychological trauma. Teal Swan, a noted spiritual guru talks about the idea of Endurism where one person (the empath of course) keeps enduring pain and suffering in the relationship as a badge of honor. Endurism is a coping strategy for an empath and can keep him or her from leaving an abusive relationship in the name of a spiritual ideal like martyrdom.
4 – Empathy can be exhausting
Mirroring someone else’s emotion, especially in the medical profession where health care professionals are often dealing with those who are terminally ill can be exhausting. It sounds counter-intuitive at first. I thought it was the moral duty of a health care professional to empathize with their patients as an integral part of their caregiving. But then it all makes sense. Empathy for a caregiver would be too exhausting and would leave them with limited cognitive bandwidth (for a lack of better term here) to carry out their duties. Once, a surgeon I knew had to operate on a relative after a car accident in a remote location. He, broke down later stating that this had to be the most emotionally draining surgery he ever had to do.
5 – Empathy can potentially knock you off your purpose
Imagine yourself as a CEO of a Multinational Pharmaceutical Company which has patented a cure for Ebola. The research took years and millions of dollars in investment. Now would be a perfect time to reward the shareholders for their patience by having a premium on your patent. As the head of your corporation, the worst thing you could possibly do at the moment would be to go all hippie, empathize and compromise the bottom line for another arbitrary cause.
6 – Absence of Empathy doesn’t necessarily make you a bad person
My 8-year-old son happens to be Autistic. One of the core deficits of people with the Autism Spectrum Disorder (If not THE most critical deficit) is the lack of mirror neurons in their brains which means an inability to feel and to connect with others. In other words, he lacks almost any semblance of empathy. He merrily follows “His Own Bliss” even if that means infringing upon the socially accepted boundaries we maintain with others. At a restaurant, if left unchecked, he has no qualms about reaching out and picking up from other’s plates for his own needs. Does this make him a social misfit? Probably. Does he need therapy to manage his behavioral impulses in the absence of cognitive reasoning? Of course, he does. But is he a bad person? Far from it. He is an angel. He is more likely to be taken advantage of by others as opposed to ever hurting anyone deliberately.
Bloom, according to me has brought to the forefront a very real and substantive dilemma faced by many leaders of today’s hyper-connected era of public shaming. “Political Correctness” is forcing leaders to adhere to protocols, stripping them away from their decisiveness and dare I say their masculinity.Maybe, in times of crises what we actually need is for one person to take charge for the sake of everyone. In the 2nd part, I will discuss Bloom’s recommendation for Practicing Rational Compassion as an alternative to empathy.
[i]Bloom,P. (2016) Against Empathy : A Case for Rational Compassion, HarperCollins