I have on many occasions warned against overestimating the power of empathy. Today’s therapists seem to believe that they possess a superior capacity for empathy. They imagine that they are in the business of doling it out to their patients.
Moreover, they want their patients to feel the pain and suffering of other people more deeply. This, the therapists believe, will make their patients healthier and more compassionate human beings. Why limit yourself to suffering your own problems? You should extend your capacity to suffer to the pain of other people?
It was tosh then. It’s tosh now.
One will not review the literature and the debates about empathy today. Be thankful for that. One will, however, present the latest study from the field of social psychology wherein the researchers identified something that they called an “empathy gap.”
What, pray tell, is an empathy gap?
In brief, those who have an empathy gap have suffered a misfortune or adversity and have successfully surmounted it. Consequently, they will feel less compassion for those who are suffering the same misfortune but have not surmounted it.
The Daily Mail has the story:
Researchers claim that having experience of the same problems as someone else could make you less empathetic to their plight.
This is because we tend to forget the pain of past hardships, and so we have less compassion for people dealing with the same problems.
If we've already conquered an issue, we often feel like others should be able to do the same.
It sounds perfectly rational, doesn’t it? And yet, it recalls a time in the not-so-distant past when women therapists were selling their services to prospective female patients by saying that only a woman can really understand another woman. Only a being with a womb and XX chromosomes could possible empathize with another being with a womb and XX chromosomes.
Of course, these same therapists also asserted that no man can ever be trusted. Incipient or actual patriarchs could only exploit and abuse women. A woman should never put herself under the care of such a creature. At the least, it was an effective marketing plan.
Anyway, we now know the truth. A woman therapist who has suffered through women’s problems and has overcome them will be less compassionate toward a woman who is suffering the same problems but has failed to surmount them.
It’s hard to imagine, but women’s much vaunted capacity for empathy--capacity that effectively has nothing to do with the studies one undergoes to gain accreditation as a therapist-- is a double-edged sword. A woman therapist might very well feel another woman’s pain more viscerally than a man, but if she has overcome the issue in question she will look down on a woman who has failed to do so.
Naturally, some therapists have not bought into all the tosh about empathy. They might not feel exasperated at someone who has not overcome a problem that they had long since conquered. Instead, they might be willing to use the lessons they learned from their life experience and apply them to other people’s situations.
As long as a therapist does not feel that his or her role is to feel your pain, his or her value might lie in his or her being older and wiser. Better to seek out wise, old therapists than therapists who are younger and more emotionally labile.