This week, I’ve been thinking a lot about empathy. That pesky, intangible human emotion that clouds our judgement, often at the hands of our innate biases and even has the power to overwhelm our senses and stress us out.
Simultaneously, empathy helps us resist modern trends of individualism and self-interest, allowing us to transcend into deeper levels of thinking and can even inspire radical social change. A powerful, yet confusing force.
More often than not, we come in contact with academic journals, political opinion pieces, philanthropy journals, TED Talks, and the general blogosphere that say empathy is good. Some go as far to say that there is a growing global “empathy deficit,” that we are in urgent need of more empaths in an ever-cruel world of devastating poverty, chronic homelessness, and arguably the largest refugee crisis in human history.
Despite this general consensus, I was actually surprised to a read an opinion piece published in the Wall Street Journal stating the exact opposite, aptly titled “The Perils of Empathy.” Author Paul Bloom claims that “when it comes to guiding our decisions, empathy is a moral train wreck. It makes the world worse.” Even in the byline he writes, “in politics and policy, trying to feel the pain of others is a bad idea. Empathy distorts our reasoning and makes us biased, tribal and often cruel.”
As a self-identifying empath, and as an Armenian woman born of an ancient “tribal” heritage, I was completely turned off by this cold, orientalist claim. Ironically enough, my offense to this statement is actually what prompted me to even read the article in the first place. Go figure; click-bait works.
Getting past the byline, I really wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to reconcile Bloom’s ideas or perspective at all. I say this firmly, because we know for a fact that a failure to empathize actually perpetuates racial disparities, and even causes massive foreign policy blunders: think police brutality, and the United States’ countless faux-pas, military and otherwise, in the SWANA region (Southwest Asian North Afrikan, a decolonized term for the Middle East).
Bloom continues by characterizing empathy as “vicarious suffering,” causing burnout and even withdrawal. Though a bit of a generalization, he definitely brings up an interesting notion to consider. Many professions that require high levels of empathy, like health care providers, therapists, caregivers and social workers experience the “stress of caring,” and are sometimes crushed by it. So much that almost 30 to 60 percent of social workers in high-impact sectors, such as child abuse, leave their jobs every year.”
In the spirit of steering clear of blanket statements about empathy, neuroscientists and psychologists have actually uncovered an important distinction that can help us avoid empathy’s extremes as described above: they are emotion contagion and empathic concern.
“Emotion contagion [,] is vicariously sharing another person’s feeling, and empathic concern [is] forming a goal to alleviate that person’s suffering. Whereas contagion involves blurring the boundary between self and other, concern requires retaining or even strengthening such boundaries.”
Sharing another person’s feelings (a.k.a. “vicarious suffering”) might cause one to lose their sense of self and feel crushed by the weight of caring. Whereas forming a substantive goal to alleviate another person’s suffering can actually strengthen the role of the self without losing agency or experiencing a heavy emotional toll.
So is Bloom really describing a problem with empathy itself? Is “too much” empathy what makes us “tribal”, “cruel”, and ineffective problem solvers? Probably not. Empathy should not be seen as a direct transfer of the emotions, fears, or anxieties of another person. Beyond simply mirroring what others feel, or taking on their burden, how can we better our ability to identify and understand other peoples’ emotions? Isn’t that the key to problem solving anyway? Making sure you know exactly what you’re up against?
Empathy is about balance: balancing our own emotive qualities without being overcome by them, and stepping outside of our innate biases so that we can step into the shoes of another to experience the world as they see it. If our daily work, life calling, or passions are centered around social impact, then this nuance is critical to maintaining our self-care, while keeping ourselves motivated, and forward-thinking.
Though we may be “wired for empathy” as humans, it’s up to us to gain the skills and tools we need to use it wisely. Ultimately, reorienting ourselves towards a smarter way to empathize can be the key to shaping the type of world we wish to see.