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May 14, 2015       

Empathy Requires a Strong Sense of Self
by Monica A. Frank, PhD

Empathy is the ability to understand another person's emotional state and to feel for that person. When we empathize with another person (or with groups of people) we are more likely to be responsive to their need.

However, being responsive doesn't always mean taking care of their need—it means to respond in a way that is meant to be helpful. For instance, psychologists are very empathetic as a group. However, if we do our job correctly, we typically create discomfort in our clients. We may confront them about behavior they want to ignore. Or we may encourage them to do something they are afraid of and want to avoid. Or, we bring up subjects that cause them to cry. In fact, a maxim in our profession is “You will feel worse before you feel better.” Our empathy for other people and knowing that the way to emotional health is uncomfortable allows us to do what is best for our clients even though it may not feel good (for them or for us).

Many people believe empathy and selflessness go hand in hand. Yet, sometimes selflessness can be quite selfish. Often, when people tell me, “I don't want to confront (someone) because I don't want to hurt her (his) feelings” what they really mean is “I don't want to feel uncomfortable myself.” Although their statement about not wanting to hurt feelings appears to be empathetic, in reality, they are protecting themselves from discomfort which is why it may be selfish. In such a case, confronting someone about their behavior may be more selfless, empathetic, and ultimately helpful than staying quiet.

Even neuropsychologists studying the activity of the brain expected that empathy would be associated with selflessness shown by decreased right parietal lobe (RPL) activity of the brain. People who have damage to that area of the brain are less focused on the self and tend to be more selfless. However, these researchers found the opposite to be true which is that a stronger sense self shown by increased RPL was associated with empathy (Johnstone et al., 2014).

Such an outcome makes sense when considering that helping others may require doing things they may not like. Saying “no” to someone when you are empathetic to their need is harder and more uncomfortable than complying with their request. “No, I will not do this for you but I will show you how to do it.” “No, I will not pretend everything is okay when it is not.” “No, you cannot have everything you want.” Caring deeply for others and doing what is best for them especially when it may not be what they want requires a strong sense of self.

Johnstone, B., Cohen, D., Bryant, K. R., Glass, B., & Christ, S. E. (2014, November 17). Functional and Structural Indices of Empathy: Evidence for Self-Orientation as a Neuropsychological Foundation of Empathy. Neuropsychology. Advance online publication. DOI: 10.1037/neu0000155

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