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Empathy: Could It Be What You're Missing?

A Washington Psychotherapist Suggests How to Tell . . . and How to Treat the Symptoms
By Douglas LaBier

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Empathy: Could It Be What You're Missing?
Douglas LaBier

You may not realize it, but a great number of people suffer from EDD.

No, you're not reading a misprint of ADD or ED. The acronym stands for empathy deficit disorder.

Nor will you find it listed in the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, even though that tome has been expanding as normal variations of mood and temperament have increasingly been defined as disorders. I'm hesitant to suggest adding another one. But this one is real.

Based on my 35 years of experience as a psychotherapist, business psychologist and researcher, I have come to believe that EDD is a pervasive but overlooked condition with profound consequences for the mental health of individuals and of our society. People who suffer from EDD are unable to step outside themselves and tune in to what other people experience. That makes it a source of personal conflicts, of communication failure in intimate relationships, and of the adversarial attitudes -- even hatred -- among groups of people who differ in their beliefs, traditions or ways of life.

Take the man who reported to me that his wife was complaining that he didn't spend enough time with their children, that she had most of the burden despite having a career of her own. "Yeah, I see her point," he says in a neutral voice, "but I need time for my sports activities on the weekends. I'm not going to give that up. And at night I'm tired, I want to veg out." As we talked further, it became clear to me that he was unable to experience what his wife's world was like for her.

Or the computer executive who prided himself on having a stable family life, then casually told me that, even though he believed in the environmental threat of global warming, he couldn't care less. "I'll be long gone when New York is under water," he said. And when I asked him whether he cared about how it might affect his kids or grandkids, he replied with a grin: "Hey, that's their problem."

Or the woman who works in the financial industry who told me she's indifferent to how American Muslims might feel: "I think they're all terrorists," she said, "and would like to kill us all, anyway."

These may sound like extreme examples, but I hear variations of those themes all the time. By breeding this kind of emotional isolation, EDD is particularly dangerous in today's increasingly interconnected, global world. It plays out in ways both small and large: In troubled intimate relationships, when partners become locked into adversarial positions; and in warfare between groups with different beliefs, such as Palestinians and Israelis locked in a death grip.

Feeling Others' Pain

Unlike sympathy -- which reflects understanding of another person's situation, but viewed through your own lens -- empathy is what you feel when you enter the internal world of another person. Without abandoning your own perspective, you experience the other's emotions, conflicts or aspirations. That kind of connection builds healthy relationships -- an essential part of mental health.

EDD develops when people focus too much on acquiring power, status and money for themselves at the expense of developing those healthy relationships. Nearly every day we hear or read about people who have been derailed by the pursuit of money and recognition and end up in rehab or behind bars. But many of the people I see, whether therapy patients or career and business clients, struggle with their own versions of the same thing. They have become alienated from their own hearts and equate what they have with who they are.

The net result is that we don't recognize that we're all one, bound together. We only see ourselves. I sometimes invite people to think of it this way: When you cut your finger, you don't say, "That's my finger's problem, not mine"; nor do you do a cost-benefit analysis before deciding whether to take action.

You respond immediately because you feel the pain.

What's So Funny?

Recent research shows that the capacity to feel what another person feels is hard-wired through what are called mirror neurons. Functional magnetic resonance imagery (fMRI) showed that brain regions involving both emotions and physical sensations light up in someone who observes or becomes aware of another person's pain or distress. Similarly, research shows that altruistic behavior lights up the pleasure centers of the brain usually associated with food or sex.

Just as you can develop EDD by too much self-absorption, you can also overcome EDD by retraining your brain to take advantage of what is known as neuroplasticity. Similar research shows that as you refocus your thoughts, feelings and behavior in the direction you desire, the brain regions associated with them are reinforced. What's more, changing your brain activity reinforces the changes you're making in your thinking. The result is a self-reinforcing loop between your conscious attitudes, your behavior and your brain activity.

By focusing on developing empathy, you can deepen your understanding and acceptance of how and why people do what they do and you can build respect for others. This doesn't mean that you are whitewashing the differences you have with other people or letting them walk over you. Rather, empathy gives you a stronger, wiser base for resolving conflicts and trumps self-centered, knee-jerk reactions to surface differences.

It puts you in a frame of mind where the words of the Elvis Costello song resonate: "What's So Funny 'Bout Peace, Love and Understanding?"


Douglas LaBier directs the Center for Adult Development in the District. Comments:health@washpost.com.

Special to The Washington Post. Tuesday, December 25, 2007; Page HE05