Based on both my 72 years of a non-sheltered personal life, and from the last 39 years as a practicing dissident therapist, I’d like to share that some of the most highly empathic people that I’ve ever known personally and professionally have been con artists, grifters, charming unrepentant thieves, psychiatric dogma-bound mental health professionals, nefarious seducers, exploitative and abusive gurus and spiritual teachers, cynically manipulative fearmongering politicians, remorseless masterful liars, and heartless and merciless predators of every kind.
I believe there’s a very common, pop-psychology, new-age misconception that conflates being empathic with being caring and compassionate.
But unfortunately, the subjective experience of feeling empathy for another never ensures that caring and compassion for the other are also happening or are ever going to happen.
Having empathy only means “having the ability to share someone else’s feelings or experiences by imagining what it would be like to be in that person’s situation,” according to the Cambridge definition of empathy.
Because we are vulnerable to being deceived into believing that we are also being cared about when we feel that another person really sees and understands us, while in fact they may simply be empathically tuning into us to be more equipped to control, exploit or even harm us, I felt it important to write this blog post exploring that very real and frequent possibility, and more.
I remember a very charismatic career criminal I’d grown up with, who had spent many years in prison, telling me decades ago: “Man, I’m just like you. I coulda been a therapist. I can’t read minds but in a few minutes I can tell where a person lives inside. They always give away what they want — their wanting to be loved, their wanting to not be alone, wanting to feel safe — and when I know what they want and where they live inside, then the con is on.”
Unscrupulous politicians also use their very developed skills of empathy to discern where voters “live inside” in order to manipulate voters and win their trust. Such politicians specialize in tuning in empathically to people’s fears and then, to stoke those fears, holding out the deceitful promise that only the seemingly empathic and compassionate politician really cares and will provide safety and protection to the voters.
In light of what I’ve written above, I think what often gets attributed to a person having a “failure of empathy” is in fact not the case. The person who doesn’t express genuine caring or compassion when in the presence of our suffering may very well have empathically imagined themselves in our shoes, and may know well what suffering we are experiencing, but to put it bluntly, they simply may not give a damn, except for how that intimate knowledge of us may serve their purposes.
In the case of people whose purpose is to succeed as controlling, psychiatric dogma-bound mental health professionals, very often their use of empathy to gain personal knowledge about us assists them to intellectually reframe our suffering in their theory-laden minds — to define our sufferings as being symptoms of social deviance and as proof of a DSM-defined psychopathology disorder.
Tuning into us empathically serves to allow them to categorize us to fit a damning diagnostic label, one that can justify the objectifying treatment responses that are so often devoid of any measurable essence of the warmth of human compassion.
Maybe we naturally hope that if only the person who consistently doesn’t respond with palpable caring and compassion to our suffering could just empathically put themselves in our shoes, that they would surely care about us then, and would be undeniably compassionate in the face of our suffering.
It’s a sobering experience to try in every way possible to explain and to prove to someone why and how we are emotionally suffering, in hopes of getting that unmistakable light of caring and compassion to go on in their eyes, only to see the blank look of bored indifference staring back instead — or to see the chilling Nurse Ratched eyes of psychiatric authority, or sometimes even the look of contempt and resentment in the eyes of those we fervently hope would be moved by compassion for us.
You might try saying something like this the next time that happens:
“I’m really exhausted trying to get you to show a glimmer of compassion that indicates you have empathic understanding about the truth of why I’m suffering emotionally right now. But I must say I believe it’s not because of a failure of empathy on your part. I believe you know exactly why I’m feeling the way I do, but you simply don’t care that I’m suffering, even though you understand why I am. So my blunt question for you is: You don’t really give a damn about my emotional pain right now, do you?”
I’ve found that it’s not surprising when the person confronted this way will reveal that they really weren’t having a failure of empathy — because they very often will truthfully respond and defiantly say:
“You’re right, I know exactly what’s happening for you and how you’re suffering but I really don’t care!”
In addition to what’s mentioned above about the relationship between empathy and compassion, it may be equally worth exploring how feeling empathy can so crucially be a prerequisite for then feeling caring, compassion and love, for ourselves or another.
If I do start out by feeling empathy, then what might get in the way of feeling caring, compassion and love too?
Focusing first on the need to experience feeling empathy for oneself, it almost seems redundant to say I might need to become empathically aware of what I’m feeling inside. Why wouldn’t I always be tuned in empathically to myself?
Unfortunately, it seems to me that we’ve been programmed since infancy by our culture-wide phobia of the unpredictable subjectivity of human emotion. The psychiatric disease model of suppressing the expression of human emotional suffering reinforces a stifling cultural environment where we have been discouraged from being able to easily know what we’re feeling, to name our emotions to ourselves, or to openly and intensely express our emotions to others.
I’ve previously written here on MIA about how I see the evolution of the social institution of psychiatry, and that it’s been created for and tasked with the suppression and pathologizing of human emotional suffering in our families and society.
So, against the backdrop of our cultural conditioning to avoid knowing and expressing emotional truth, along with psychiatry’s oppressive policing of our emotions, it’s no surprise that the understanding that empathy for ourselves could reveal about our emotional truth is so hard to access.
Once we do empathically get in touch with our emotional truth, though, the next hurdle is often to claim self-love and self-compassion. Finding people who value our emotional truth and feel compassion for our suffering is often the key for the healing and liberation we seek to emerge in that safe and loving interpersonal crucible of transformation.
I’ve found that guilt and shame are often obstacles to feeling worthy to bestow compassion on ourselves. My MIA article “It’s Possible — and Beneficial — to Stop Feeling Guilt and Shame” may be of help in moving toward the freedom to let our emotional empathy and compassion for ourselves emerge.
Since empathy is a prerequisite for having compassion for ourselves and others, it’s valuable to seek out the real reasons why a compassionate response doesn’t always accompany our empathy.
If we’re capable of real compassion, then the stepping stone of empathy is always there to help us reach our goal.
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.