Empathy!!! Is It Good, Bad, or both?

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 100_0502hope 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


Walk in My Shoes…How Important Is It?

Every time I hear someone say, ‘I know EXACTLY how you feel,’ I remember an experience I had years ago wanting to volunteer for a non-profit organization which helped recovering addicts.

I called and offered  FREE services in whatever form the organization needed. The first question the interviewer asked  was: ‘Are YOU a recovering addict?’

The response was no, I wasn’t, but why did it matter? I lived in a family in which addictions destroyed the innocence of childhood and confused  at a deeper level, my teen years which were confusing by definition.

‘Sorry,’ the interviewer said, ‘we ONLY accept volunteers who are recovering addicts. You must have walked in our shoes to understand.’

Oh!!! I was so angry and stormed out of the room!  I was not, still am not, confident enough to not take rejection personally.

For many years I didn’t understand why ‘they’ thought I would have needed to be a recovering addict to be able to help efficiently. In other words, I questioned the value of WALKING IN ONE’S SHOES to be able to understand one’s thought processes and level of pain.

As I continued on the winding journey of life, one by one, situations presented and slowly I started to understand the value of having experienced the problems of the people one attempted to help.

Here is an example of  a personal situation in which the roles reversed:

As young parents, my husband and I needed help to adjust to the new situation and went to see a family therapist.

‘Do YOU have children,?’ was one of my first questions to the therapist.  He blushed and the tone of his voice indicated aggravation, probably similar to mine when I was rejected as a volunteer to help recovering addicts. He refused to answer the question, as he had a PhD in clinical psychology, and his academic knowledge was the tool needed to help us, not his personal experiences. True or false?  It really didn’t matter, because our decision was already made: we wanted help ONLY from a therapist who, in addition to academic knowledge, had a personal experience parenting. We didn’t come back for a second session and found a therapist who was also a parent. Someone who was up in the middle of the night to soothe their sick baby, someone who had experienced the excitement of hearing her baby say ‘mama’ for the first time…

Several other situations occurred in our lives, in which professional help was needed: divorce, financial troubles, serious illnesses and the event that topped all others in its complexity: suicide!

In each of them I was more trusting, open-minded and receptive if the help came from someone who, in addition to his/her academic knowledge, had  personal experiences with the very problems I struggled with.   In other words, while my logical mind knew education and empathy were enough to be efficient as a professional, my gut, the part of me that I don’t fully understand, but which I trust, ordered me to only follow the guidance of  professionals who have had similar personal experiences.  Professionals who had WALKED IN MY SHOES. Perhaps the ‘shoes’ were not the perfect size, yet the helper had taken a few steps in them as human beings, regardless of  their education.

The conclusion?

The conclusion is that there is NO conclusion!!! The reality of life is that therapists and counselors  could not possibly experience every problem presented to them and they chose a helping profession because of their high level of empathy,  to which they added years of education.

As I look back, my personal conclusion, NOT THE CONCLUSION, is that what is absolutely necessary to help someone efficiently (in addition to academic knowledge) is the relationship, the ‘alliance’ between the one who seeks guidance and the one who offers it.

If we take everything into consideration, going back to the beginning of this post… should have the organization helping recovering addicts allow me to help? I say, ABSOLUTELY YES, but I understand why they didn’t.