Monday, April 13, 2009

Can I Really Feel Your Pain?

The verdict is in: we have all been convicted of narcissism.

Financial crisis, terrorism, global warming, inadequate health care... the fault does not lie in our stars but in ourselves. Or better, we love ourselves too much.

If too much good feeling about ourselves got us into this mess, the genies of the mental health profession have reasoned that the solution must be... empathy.

Everyone has a different definition of empathy, but it must involve the ability to feel how it feels to have someone else's feelings.

At the risk of quibbling, the same therapists who have been selling empathy as a panacea for our narcissism have been exhorting people to express their feelings openly and honestly, no matter what effect it has on other people.

Put these two injunctions together and you get a boatload of cognitive dissonance.

Anyway, the ultimate statement of empathy is the old saw: I feel your pain.

You know the phrase well. A recent, highly empathic, lip-biting president adopted it as his slogan.

By now the term has become a shibboleth, a password that people sprinkle into conversation to show that they are card-carrying members of the therapy culture.

Some shibboleths make sense. Empathy is not one of them.

The problem with the concept is that, truth be told, I do not, I cannot, feel your pain. Your pain is inalienably yours. It cannot be shared. That is one of the reasons it feels painful.

I can surmise how it feels to be in your shoes; I can tell that you feel good about being in your shoes; but short of taking over your mind, I can never really know how your feet feel when you put on your Mephistos.

Even if you believe that you can feel someone else's feelings, the only way you can do so is by mirroring their expressions. When you read someone's facial expressions, you can tell that they are in pain. If you mimic their expressions, you feel something like their feeling of pain.

But if this is true, then empathy is just another name for narcissism.

What matters in this life is knowing that someone is in pain, not necessarily feeling their pain.

Look at it this way. If you feel someone's pain, and if they also feel powerless to make it go away, does your superior capacity for empathy cause you to feel both the pain and the powerlessness?

And if you too fell powerless, what good are you?

You should be able to tell from facial expressions when your friend is getting bored with your conversation. But that does not mean that you should feel bored. You should take the cue and either shut up or change the subject.

Take a more upbeat example. Say that a man knows that his wife loves receiving roses for her anniversary. Surely, this does not mean that he knows how it feels to be a woman receiving roses on her anniversary.

It means that he would do well to send the roses, with a note. Not because he feels her pleasure, but because he is duty-bound to make his wife happy.

For future reference, the note should not express his empathy and it should not limit itself to an expression of true love. For an anniversary, his note should confirm his commitment to their marriage.

But the social connection that exists between married couples is not based on empathy. It is based on duty and commitment.

I am sure you all know that if this man forgets to do his conjugal duty, he will not just be feeling her pain. He will be feeling plenty of his own.

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