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How to be human 101 – Empathy

Bad RobotIn my early years I had an all encompassing belief that the universe revolved around my arse. Apparently this is quite common among single children and ‘tail end charlies’ like myself, whose elder brothers were nearly 10-years older than me.

It also didn’t help that I came into my mothers life at a very difficult time when she was being physically abused by my father, as she told me in later years, I was the raft that she clung to during the storms of her turbulent marriage. She finally divorced my father when he was coming up for retirement as she couldn’t bear the thought of being stuck in the house with the miserable old bastard 24/7.

All of this meant that instead of being a well rounded individual when I stepped out on my own in the world, I was actually an arrogant, egotistical son-of-a-bitch. I was fortunate enough to meet someone who recognized the sociopathic aspect of my own nature and managed to wean me off the worst excesses of it.

However, I am often left with a feeling that I am only pretending to be human, following an almost programmed process of condition-response.

I don’t think I am alone in this…

For those of you that enjoy this amusing and comic portrayal, there are a number of other thought provoking animations as part of the RSA: Shorts series, I heartily recommend them.

RSA: Shorts


  1. Lynne says:

    I have neither the time nor the inclination to take another person’s problems on my shoulders unless I am invested in that person already (family). I have enough problems of my own and I prefer to deal with them in my own way. I neither dump upon nor want to be dumped upon unless it is a call to duty. I learned from bitter experience not to get involved. It ended a decades long friendship after I was finally wrung dry by an emotional vampire who thought the empathy should only go in one direction. So I don’t get involved any more.

    Selfish? Probably. Survival mechanism? Absolutely.

  2. John Galt says:

    It’s not just about looking at it from a personal perspective (although I find that helps), but working as a consultant for more than 20-years, it helps tremendously if I can put myself in the mental space of my client, to see the world from their perspective. That is one of the reasons why I’ve been relatively successful, because in so doing you end up being able to provide them with solutions that are tailored to their perspective.

    One of the reasons why there is often conflict and argument in business is because of a lack of empathy, especially between front-line and back-office staff.

    Not all of this is about touchy-feely psychobabble.

  3. Lynne says:

    JG, looking at it from your perspective makes sense. I’m all for that kind of empathy.

  4. Humans – vile creatures, we should band together, hunt down the humans and wipe them out.

  5. Lynne says:

    Malthusians first…

    Evil laff.

  6. longrider says:

    As a trainer working in learning and development – and in potentially dangerous environments, empathy helps. Whether I already had it or have learned it, I can’t quite say, but I am empathic and my students respond to it.

  7. NickM says:

    “I was actually an arrogant, egotistical son-of-a-bitch.” And who wasn’t? The test of a human is not what they are like at 20 but what they are like at 40. Gods help me for I am 40!

  8. RAB says:

    I am an only child, so that should put me in the first division of selfish bastards, no siblings to have to share with and the undivided attention of all the adults around me, but I don’t think I’ve turned out that bad, on the whole.

    I am deficient in certain human traits or emotions though. I don’t get Envy Greed and Hate. Envy especially I find very weird. I would love to be able to play the guitar as well as Eric Clapton of B B King (I shook King’s hand at a gig when I was 16 and didn’t wash it for a week hoping the magic would rub off on me… it hasn’t) but I don’t degrudge them their talent, and wish to take it away from them. And that is what Envy is, not just wanting to have what others have, but depriving them of it in a spittle of spite. Envy seems to be the very cornerstone of Socialism to me.

    I am basically by nature an artist, but trained as a lawyer. Lawyers at their best are there to solve problems for their clients, not create them for everybody else, for that you become a Politician ;-) So when my friends are in various types of trouble, I try to solve their problems by talking and listening to them. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. It depends on whether they are listening back.

    How empathic that makes me, I have no idea.

  9. NickM says:

    Ah RAB, envy is the root of all evil. Forget socialism! This goes back to King David craving the attentions os Abishag the Shunammite. Hell’s teeth it goes back Ugg thinking his neighbour Ogg had a nicer cave.

  10. Julie near Chicago says:

    JG, I sympathize with your point: That is, I understand it, and even (in your case) I can grasp it emotionally. But I surely have a problem with the video, because it completely ignores the fact that sympathy and empathy apply also to those who are glad of another person’s happiness (sympathy) and to those who feel another’s happiness as if it were their own (empathy).

    Also: Sympathy may be more detached than empathy, but the ability to feel it as well as empathy is part of our emotional makeup, and a good thing too.

    The value of sympathy lies in the very fact that it allows us to recognize others’ experiencing of their situation (whether unpleasant or pleasant), without confusing it with our own. This means that we can take care of ourselves* without completely disregarding others, and it also means that we aren’t so caught up in their inner experience that we can’t bring a realistic point of view to their problems (or their joys either, in cases where the cause of joy is likely going to lead to a crash later on).

    *Along these lines, Lynne’s comment above is pertinent also.

    If our only choices were between going around constantly bleeding for the sores of others, or else complete detachment from them, or else continually dancing back and forth between these two positions — what then? In the first case we’d be useless to anyone, since we’d simply experience ourselves as other people locked in their personal dramas. In the second, we’d be psychopaths. In the third, we’d be downright psychotic.

    A doctor or nurse or, perhaps, a physical therapist who was empathetic as opposed to sympathetic would be unable to help a patient, if the helping were to occasion more pain for the patient.

    . . .

    RAB, to me the word for what you’re talking about isn’t “Envy,” although I guess that is what the word means to a lot of people. But I do know exactly what you’re talking about, and I don’t understand it either. Personally, I’d say “I envy Horowitz beyond belief for his pianistic abilities — I desperately wish I could do that too.” But this gives me no wish at all that he be unable to do that. It’s just that I want to be able to do it too.

    Still, when you say that “Envy is the cornerstone of socialism,” I have to admit there’s truth in that.

    So here is a conundrum that occurred to me many years ago. A friend and I got to discussing a murder that had been in the news, where a guy became the odd man out in a love triangle, and therefore murdered the object of his affections. So what kind of sense does that make! I can understand murdering the rival, the other guy, which might in some fantasy world (or even in the real world, if the beloved were sufficiently messed up, I suppose) make the girl his forever — but what good is it murdering her? This…does…not…compute….

    The thing is, I had thought that being both blessed and cursed with an active imagination and a good-sized empathetic capacity, I “understood” people a little better than most. (Well, my excuse is, I was young yet, not even 45. :( ) But, no:

    After that discussion, I realized that we cannot be empathetic with nor even very sympathetic toward someone unless we can find a piece of him within ourselves. The guy who murders his rival — I could at least “see where he is coming from,” but the guy who murders the beloved is just beyond me.

    Especially if what he feels for her really is love.

    Would you smash Horowitz’s hands, and deprive yourself of all his music, just because you can’t play like that yourself?

  11. John Galt says:

    Julie, I think our salvation from psychopathy is that we can chose to feel sympathy, we can choose to empathise or alternately we can choose to do neither. The key driver for which choice we make tends to be our commitment.

    If we have no emotional commitment to the person involved then a passive reaction might be mere observation without comment*, whereas an active reaction might be sympathy.

    However, if we have an emotional commitment to the person involved then a passive reaction might be sympathy, whereas an active reaction might be empathy. The difficulty here is that without having a comparable emotional state it is difficult to empathise.

    For example it is easier for a woman to empathise with another woman over a miscarriage than it is for a man (who is not her partner) to do so.

    There has been a little too much misplaced empathy over public events such as the death of Princess Diana (complete overload of maudlin bullshit in my opinion – enabled by Tony Blair)

    It is appropriate and helpful in certain circumstances, but they have to be the right circumstances and the empathy has to be genuine, not contrived.

    * = or Schadenfreude :-)

  12. Julie near Chicago says:

    Then I think that by “empathy” we must mean somewhat different things, JG. You spoke above about being able to see things from your client’s perspective, and I’m sure you’re right about that. But there’s still an emotional element lacking there, or if not lacking, then perhaps subdued. Anyway, it’s not really that you want to feel his emotions yourself; it’s that you want to understand what he wants, you want to know how he responds both rationally and emotionally to your suggestions, etc. In that, you’re like a teacher or a therapist. “I can see that the idea of having to manage his own portfolio here makes Joe here really nervous. He needs a really top-notch account manager and a real financial planner.” Or something. *g*

    But empathy (as I’ve always understood the term) means coming as close as humanly possible to literally feeling what the other guy is feeling, and yes, he or she can be a perfect stranger. Thinking of burn victims puts me so much in mind of their pain that I have to push it out of my head. Or when I think of someone with a broken bone, for instance. Or of a husband or wife whose wife or husband has left him or her. Or a parent whose child has died, or has a toothache for that matter. Or the empathy of feeling some other person’s delight in something they’ve done or that’s happened to them, which is equally important.

    It really tempts me to say that on the contrary, we are (most of us) wired to feel empathy, but that sympathy is learned — it’s a technique of damping down our natural response to others’ emotions by remaining consciously aware that it’s not we who are feeling the pain (or the joy, except that one doesn’t fight that so much!). Tempting — but at this stage it’s only a conjecture.

    By the way — I wouldn’t refer to any of the Princess Di stuff as in any way empathetic. With whom are these people feeling empathy? The empathy has to be a response to another’s emotion after all: Their emotion triggers its like in you. Well, I suppose that some people do feel the sadness of others who feel sad, or somehow disillusioned perhaps. But mostly, I would think that the people who actually felt bad over Diana’s death felt their own sadness, not someone else’s.

    Interesting discussion, JG. Thanks. :>)

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