The Extreme End of Empathy

I’m sure we’ll all agree that empathy is a healthy and desirable emotion. It’s also a necessary emotion, as far as living as a cooperative member of the human race goes. Empathy regulates our behaviour towards one another. It makes us helpful to one another. It makes us look after and care for one another. At a fundamental evolutionary level, empathy enhances our chances of survival. It bonds us to one another.

However.

We often discuss problems of empathy in terms of what happens when it’s lacking (cue anti-social behaviour). But having too much empathy can be a problem too, creating an imbalance that hampers our pursuit of peace and happiness. This came to mind this morning when I noticed myself feeling sorry for a tiny nub of banana that failed to make it onto my toast with the other slices of banana. I didn’t want it on there because it was the nubby end bit with the black dot. Poor rejected piece of banana. I’d hurt its feelings. I felt bad inside. And so I put it on my toast. I included the banana. I didn’t want it to feel left out.

That little nub of banana tells me a lot about myself (apart from the suspicion that I might be a raving lunatic). It tells me first and foremost that I, myself, don’t cope well with criticism and rejection.

Let’s deconstruct this.

We learn empathy by relating to the emotional experiences of others via our own. At around the age of 2, we begin to develop awareness of our self as a person who is separate from others. When we experience a perceived loss of love, or a disapproval of some kind, or a rejection, we suffer emotionally. As a result of our own suffering we are armed with experiences that serve as a reference for the suffering of others. We can observe another person suffering and vicariously feel what they’re feeling.

So we’ll offer that person a hug, or we’ll try to make them feel better. We’ll extend a caring heart that says ‘I know what that feels like’ or ‘I can imagine’. Or we’ll include them on our toast with the rest of the banana.

So clearly, at some point in my life, I have felt very left out, and very distressed at having been left out. I wanted to be on the toast with the others.

Wistful nub.

When I was a child, I had a white stuffed cat toy that I named ‘Louise’. Every day I would tend to the emotional needs of that toy. I would take her everywhere, anticipating the anxiety she might endure if left alone. I had this over-riding desire that she feel ok. It is common for children to role-play emotional relationships with their toys. This is one way that we practice and develop our social and emotional skills and make sense of the world around us. But when you can’t leave an inanimate object in a room by itself without carrying a lingering anxiety around its feelings, the developing empathy has grown a little askew.Fretting for the toy was a reflection of my personal distress and a struggle to cope with the fear of being abandoned (an instinctive human fear). Soothing Louise’s feelings was a means of soothing my own. There is nothing inherently wrong with this – actually, it shows some resourcefulness. I’d found a way of somewhat coping and controlling my own emotional distresses, as much as my childish cognition would allow.

What happens when we transfer this extreme empathising to our human counterparts? We worry excessively about the state of the world; we feel tortured by the suffering of others; we put a lot of our energy into trying to rescue people and situations.  The empathic response shifts from a healthy and helpful expression of sympathy to a compulsive need to control our environment, to ‘fix’ external sufferings so that we can feel ok within ourselves; so that we can mute the anxieties caused by our own over-identification.

We can become so preoccupied with our own vicarious suffering that we unconsciously become more focussed on our own needs than the actual needs of the person or situation that suffers. We attach to our own agendas. We become controlling. We interfere. We feel angry a lot of the time. We feel depressed. We feel guilty. We feel helpless. We feel distressed. Altruism becomes enmeshed with self-absorption. We cannot let go and let be. We are too feeling.   We have projected our own sufferings so profoundly onto the world around us that everything we see seems to need repairing or soothing.

We spend our time and energy trying to make nubs of banana happy.

What has any of this got to do with yoga?

I’ll let you decide.

The Yoga Experiment, 2012