Empathy and our culture!
Are we trained to be empathetic? Is this a a feature which will help one to be successful in a world obsessed by the greed for money and plagued by competition?
What inspired today’s post was a quote I received on my Facebook news feed from a site I follow, Sustainable Human. A quote by Neil DeGrasse Tyson Film for Action photo
Here is part of what he said and made me think at a deeper level,as on the same day, I experienced a doctor’s un-empathetic attitude:
Humans are not as good as we should be to empathize with feelings and thoughts of others, be they humans or other animals………. So may be part of our formal education should be empathy… reading, writing, EMPATHY!
Beautifully said, and so necessary to do in a world in which we lock ourselves behind closed doors in front of laptops and smart phones, having the illusion we communicate with so many!
Our culture trains people to be individualistic and competitive rather than empathetic. However, according to Psychology Today, scientists have discovered the existence of “mirror neurons,” which react to emotions expressed by others and reproduce themselves. Why I find this significant? If our brains have these neurons and they have the capacity to reproduce themselves on “contact” with other’s emotions, what happens when there is NO CONTACT? My personal conclusion is that these neurons do not develop as nature intended, and if they don’t, what would happen in the long run?
I am not against social media and communicating through various internet venues, however, I do believe that the face-to-face human contact and communication need to be maintained and treasured. There is nothing more powerful then the good human touch, or a cry on a friend’s shoulder instead of touching a screen.
Let’s define empathy!
Empathy is the experience of understanding another person’s condition from their perspective. You place yourself in their shoes and feel what they feel. Empathy is known to increase prosocial (helping) behaviors. (https://www.psychologytoday.combasics/empathy)
Holding a M.S.in Counseling and Clinical Psychology and loving research, I continued my “digging” into the meaning of empathy. I came across an excellent article, by Ronald Riggio, PhD. entitled: Are You Empathetic? published in Cutting Edge Leadership, 08/03/11.
His article completes the basic definition given in Psychology Today, by describing three types of empathy.
The first type is cognitive, perspective taking, one who is able to see things from another’s point of view.
The second type is a “personal distress” type empathy, which means someone literally FEELS another’s pain, distress, any emotions.
This second type of empathy could be good or not so good.
Riggio, gives the example of President Clinton’s quote: “I feel your pain.”
Did he really feel everyone’s pain? You be the judge, however it was a brilliant way to relate to his constituents.
The example of watching a movie and becoming one with an actor is also given. Feeling their anger, sadness, fear, love! We are one with the character.
Too much feeling of another’s emotion may not be good for us and leads to our own distress.
In real life, these types of empathy are intermingled and they are parts of one’s personality.
People with a high level of “perspective empathy,” who is good of understanding other’s point of view without getting emotionally involved, would in my opinion,make a great doctor!
This brings me to what triggered this post in the first place, my experience with an un-empathetic doctor.
I went to see him because of insomnia. He was a young resident and seemed to listen to my complaints and how important sleep was to me, and everyone! To my shock, in the end, he turned to me, looked me in the eyes, and said:
“If you were my mother, and told me you can’t sleep, I would say, DON’T SLEEP! I would not prescribe you any medications!”
What had just happen? Was this an example of the opposite of empathy? In my tired mind it sure was! But he said, “if you were my mother…” which may on a superficial level indicate empathy of both types… or was it like President Clinton’s famous quote, “I feel your pain?” The second part of his statement, “I’d tell her if you can’t sleep, then don’t, and I will not give her any medications,” showed the opposite of the empathetic beginning of his speech. I was confused… does he love his mom? Does he hate his Mom? Do I trigger something in him to remind bad things about his Mom? Clearly, they couldn’t be good, since the essence of the statement was, I will not help you!
So… the WHY of this strange and disturbing experience will remain suspended, but not the actions I am going to take to protect myself. The action? Yes, we, as patients, need to know our rights as well as our bodies and minds. I will change doctors. There is no such thing as staying with a doctor or therapist if there is no true alliance, true empathy and understanding of where YOU come from.
I shared this experience because it had a deep impact on me and my mood and because I hope others will learn from my negative experience with this doctor and if anything similar happens to them, CHANGE THE DOCTOR!!! In my opinion, all professionals in the helping profession must have the type one empathy. A must quality for a good doctor.
There are still doctors who go in this wonderful profession and empathize. Find them!
Rodica Mihalis, MS. Counseling and Clinical Psychology