Posted by: thealienist | March 30, 2010

Foundations of Mental Health: Empathy

Empathy is a dangerous and powerful thing.  But like any tool, its use is determined by the hand that wields it — either for good or for evil.  When used for the good of others, it can bring people together and foster understanding between people, even if they continue to disagree on a subject.  When used for evil, however, it is a tool that excuses too much or provides the means to take advantage of others.

It seems (though I have no statistics to back this up) that empathy is in short supply these days.  The voice of the media seems to polarize us more than it strives to bring us together.  There has always been “us” versus “them,” but the divide seems to be getting wider.  For the sake of community and for individual and collective peace, I believe that we should strive to cultivate empathy, reward its good use, and be on guard for its misuse.

Empathy demands that we be able to put ourselves in another’s place.  It is not sufficient that we project ourselves into another’s actions.  We benefit from temporarily taking on their beliefs, their traditions, their values, and their feelings.  We should do this not to excuse them or condemn them but to understand them.  If we take the time to understand what motivates others and how they experience their behaviors and the behaviors of those around them, we can communicate and interact with them more effectively, and we can learn and grow from their experiences.

The development of positive empathy is founded upon respect for others and recursively increases respect for others.  When we find that we can disagree with others but still respect them, we can be more effective in reaching out and bridging the gaps that separate us.  Negative empathy is founded upon the desire to manipulate others and leads to objectification.  The highest practitioner of this art is the sociopath.  They understand the beliefs, feelings, and values of others, often intuitively, but only for the purpose of using this understanding for their own purposes.

Some worry that building positive empathy for those different from us will lead to excusing bad behavior.  They fear that understanding why someone murders, rapes, or steals will normalize the behavior, and to a certain extent they are correct.  I believe that a good example is found in our political system.  I am a Texan and I remember when the Republicans took control of the state government.  They seized control and tried to correct problems that they saw in the way that our state legislature was run.  The Democrats felt that they were being railroaded, so they took action to block the Republican agenda.  They were called obstructionist and were severely criticized for not letting the Republicans vote on their agenda.  The Democrats, on the other hand, saw themselves as defending the values of the legislature that they saw the Republicans violating as they attempted their redistricting (Republican) or gerrymandering (Democrat).  Now look at the recent health care reform fight in Washington.  The Democrats had control of the legislature and pushed their agenda.  The Republicans used all the tools they have to block what they saw as a power grab by Democrats.  The Republicans were called obstructionist for trying to prevent the Democrats from voting on their agenda.  When you compare the two situations, you see that the Democrats and Republicans each condemn the other for similar behaviors that they justify for their friends.  Why?  I propose that it is because they can empathize with their friends.  A filibuster by my friend is justified because I understand why he is doing it.  A filibuster by my enemy is unjustified because he is just irrationally blocking my bill.   I agree that this is a misuse of empathy.

But what is the positive use of empathy?  An increase in the positive use of empathy will allow people to reach out to others and experience lives other than their own.  This is enriching, as it allows us to vicariously learn the benefits and costs of behaviors, ideas, attitudes, assumptions, and choices without having to experience them directly.  This broadens our knowledge of the world and the people who live in it.  It exposes us to a variety of experiences that evoke common emotions throughout the world, and it allows us to sample the excitement, pleasures, and sorrows of others and enrich our emotional life.  Empathy also allows us to look for solutions to problems that demonstrate love for others as well as for ourselves.  How often throughout history have decisions been made for the “good” of others without an understanding of the people to be “helped”?  In these ways, empathy opens a catalog of life events from around the world and from across the ages that we can experience and learn from and is the guidebook for showing love (agape) for others.



  1. Thanks for the reminder that empathy is important to all parties. Surely this week, of all weeks, we can work this more into our lives.


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