Written by Dr. Eric Perry, PhD
Image Credit: Pixabay
“You can only understand people if you feel them in yourself.” ~John Steinbeck
The ability to see and feel the world from another person’s point of view is one of the most powerful human traits. Empathy allows you to transport yourself into another person and to experience the world through their eyes. Without empathy, we are empty vessels; nothing more than singular and isolated figures unable to connect with the world around us.
To better understand empathy, it is important to distinguish it from sympathy. Sympathy is the ability to understand another person’s situation from your point of view. It is a self-centered point of view that helps you understand what the other person is going through based on your own circumstances. You are able to acknowledge how the other person is feeling but, from a distance. You do not become emotionally connected to the person. For example, you are able to sympathize with someone having problems in their relationship because you have had problems in your own relationship. You do not feel what they are feeling but you have an understanding of what they are experiencing.
Empathy is a bit more complicated and abstract. In order to experience empathy, you must have the ability to identify the emotion and to place yourself in the other person’s position. The focus of empathy is self-less. You are experiencing another person’s emotional life by your ability to connect with them. In a sense, you are vicariously feeling the emotion. For example, through empathy, you are able to feel a stranger’s loss of a child, even if you are childless, by seeing the loss through their perspective. Through this connection, you are able to wear the emotional skin of another and essentially feel with them.
The inability to imagine yourself in someone else’s place in order to understand what they are feeling will result in difficulty in connecting with others. The lack of empathy is one of the traits shared by psychopaths and those with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD). Also, recent research suggests that people with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) may have difficulty with empathy. In a 2018 study from the University of Georgia, researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to show that individuals with BPD have less brain activity in areas of the brain that are important for empathy.
This reduced activity may indicate that individuals with BPD have a more difficult time understanding and predicting the emotional experiences of others. However, further research is needed as there is an earlier conflicting study by Alan Krohn from 1974 that suggests individuals with BPD have a special form of empathy that gives them an enhanced sensitivity to the mental states of others.
The inability to imagine yourself in someone else’s place in order to understand what they are feeling will result in difficulty in connecting with others. In individuals with BPD, it may lead to difficulty in interpersonal relationships and an inability to maintain a stable and emotionally healthy relationship. The lack of empathy in people with NPD and psychopaths leads them to objectify others. Their inability to connect with others allows them to view them as objects to be used for their benefit.
Psychopaths are able to understand emotions but are not able to feel what others are feeling. They are able to mimic emotions to get what they want but overall they are only able to feel shallow emotions. They are not able to feel empathy, guilt, remorse, fear or love. To the psychopath, people exist only for their benefit. They will take what they want with charm, force or by attaching themselves to their victim like a parasite. The psychopath will destroy a person’s life without a second thought.
NPD exists on a continuum from mild to malignant. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), narcissists lack empathy. Individuals with NPD are able to feel emotions but due to early trauma and physiological deficits, they are not able to properly express them. Much like an empath, individuals with NPD have high emotional intelligence that allows them to identify how other people feel and think. Unlike an empath, a person with NPD uses this ability plus his lack of empathy to manipulate and exploit others. They primarily use people as a source of narcissistic supply to help them bolster their weak ego.
Empathy is a powerful source of human connection. Empathy adds to your emotional palate by allowing you to experience depths of emotions in your life that you would not otherwise experience. It allows you to feel how another person is feeling and also gives you the ability to experience another person’s perspective of the world. Without empathy, the world would be a dark place, prone to hatred of others who we perceive as different. It is important to remember that we are all essentially the same but simply have a different vantage point of the world. Our views may be different but we share common joys and fears. We all rejoice in the birth of a child and mourn the loss of a loved one in the same way.
Thank you for reading. I would love to hear your thoughts about this topic.
The thoughts expressed in this blog post are my own and are not meant to create a therapeutic relationship with the reader. This blog does not replace or substitute the help of a mental health professional. Please note, I am unable to answer your specific mental health questions as I am not fully aware of all of the circumstances.
Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology
M.A. in Clinical Psychology
B.A. in Psychology
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