Mind Matters: The Need for Empathy

We've been hearing a lot in the news about the danger of having empathy these days, but not much about what it means if you don't have it. Well, folks, according to the DSM IV, the diagnostic and statistical manual used by psychiatrists, psychologists, and other mental health professionals, one of the characteristics of a narcissistic personality disorder is “lack of empathy.”

If we are fortunate enough to have been adequately and appropriately nurtured as infants and children, we hopefully develop into empathic human beings. In fact, it is the empathy itself that defines our maturation.

Empathy is that quality that allows us to put ourselves in another person’s shoes, even when they don't fit our feet. In other words, empathy helps us to understand another. Consider the image of under-stand: you are not above the other, but standing under, “carrying” the perception, thought, emotions of the other; and you are not disengaged from them. It is a shift of focus to empathize.

This shift of focus removes us from the self-absorption that goes beyond healthy narcissism. (Yes, there is a certain amount of self-absorption we need for self-care.) Empathy gives us the ability to bracket for a while our own opinions and perspectives, and see an issue from another’s place. We begin “to get” what it is like for the other person.

Empathy is not sympathy. Sympathy can arise out of a place of pity, a place of separation from where the other stands. It is not an understanding so much as a place of distance, “I’m glad that’s not me.” Empathy is not lily livered liberalism. It is the essence of being human in its highest sense. When we empathize, we care for another out of a deep respect (“Re-spect” implies to “look again.”) for the other’s own personhood. Examples abound. When our child is in a certain mood and we are able to empathize, we consider that the behavior is not to be “taken personally.” If the child feels understood, often the situation resolves itself because we, as parents, responded empathically instead of reacting impulsively.

And when spouses can empathically listen to each other, bracketing their own points of view for a time to let the other speak, a shift in an argument can occur.

At every level of human relationship—from the individual to the Globe—empathy is a necessary ingredient to sound communication. Without empathy, communication devolves into manipulative strategy.

So perhaps it is empathy then that becomes the champion of “objectivity” since, without it we may become subjective narcissists sipping sherry and smoking cigars in our own solipsistic universe.

Kayta Curzie Gajdos holds a doctorate in counseling psychology and is in private practice in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania. She welcomes comments at MindMatters@DrGajdos.com or (610)388-2888. Past columns are posted to http://www.DrGajdos.com/Articles.

About Kayta Gajdos

Dr. Kathleen Curzie Gajdos ("Kayta") is a licensed psychologist (Pennsylvania and Delaware) who has worked with individuals, couples, and families with a spectrum of problems. She has experience and training in the fields of alcohol and drug addictions, hypnosis, family therapy, Jungian theory, Gestalt therapy, EMDR, and bereavement. Dr. Gajdos developed a private practice in the Pittsburgh area, and was affiliated with the Family Therapy Institute of Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic, having written numerous articles for the Family Therapy Newsletter there. She has published in the American Psychological Association Bulletin, the Family Psychologist, and in the Swedenborgian publications, Chrysalis and The Messenger. Dr. Gajdos has taught at the college level, most recently for West Chester University and Wilmington College, and has served as field faculty for Vermont College of Norwich University the Union Institute's Center for Distance Learning, Cincinnati, Ohio. She has also served as consulting psychologist to the Irene Stacy Community MH/MR Center in Western Pennsylvania where she supervised psychologists in training. Currently active in disaster relief, Dr. Gajdos serves with the American Red Cross and participated in Hurricane Katrina relief efforts as a member of teams from the Department of Health and Human Services' Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.Now living in Chadds Ford, in the Brandywine Valley of eastern Pennsylvania, Dr. Gajdos combines her private practice working with individuals, couples and families, with leading workshops on such topics as grief and healing, the impact of multigenerational grief and trauma shame, the shadow and self, Women Who Run with the Wolves, motherless daughters, and mediation and relaxation. Each year at Temenos Retreat Center in West Chester, PA she leads a griefs of birthing ritual for those who have suffered losses of procreation (abortions, miscarriages, infertility, etc.); she also holds yearly A Day of Re-Collection at Temenos.Dr. Gajdos holds Master's degrees in both philosophy and clinical psychology and received her Ph.D. in counseling at the University of Pittsburgh. Among her professional affiliations, she includes having been a founding member and board member of the C.G. Jung Educational Center of Pittsburgh, as well as being listed in Who's Who of American Women. Currently, she is a member of the American Psychological Association, The Pennsylvania Psychological Association, the Delaware Psychological Association, the American Family Therapy Academy, The Association for Death Education and Counseling, and the Delaware County Mental Health and Mental Retardation Board. Woven into her professional career are Dr. Gajdos' pursuits of dancing, singing, and writing poetry.

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