Empathy

Savvy Sunday Salutations

Welcome to another week with guest blogger Patrick Tulley; last week he talked about Relationships, Friendship & Attraction and how we engage with people and what our reasons are for forming friendships/relationships etc; this week Patrick talks about empathy and what it is (I sense he’s flagged this up because I may be using it incorrectly in my writings!  -Is that true?  Only you can be the judge of that 🙂 ).  I found this an easy read; I hope you do too!  Now it’s over to you Pat.

(As always there is a pdf document at the bottom of the post for those who may find this a difficult read.)

EMPATHY

I want to talk about empathy this week. A regularly misunderstood term and I think for good reason as well, which I will attempt to explore in this post. We use empathy probably more times than we care to think. In fact a lot of empathy comes deep from within our unconscious minds. But it’s an important part of how we interact with the world around us.

Sympathy

Empathy is often mistaken for sympathy. Whilst there are some similarities, the differences are quite stark. Having sympathy for a person is to understand a persons pain. Whilst it requires empathy in order to get there, it is specific to this definition. So when we feel sympathetic we have an emotional reaction towards another person’s pain. In a sense it’s like sharing the feelings of that pain. This is quite different to empathy of course. You could be a very empathic person, but not be moved to sympathy at all.

Copyright - Kheng Guan Toh

Empathy is about understanding an interaction you are having with either a group or one individual in any given environment. It’s about recognising dangers, safety and personality types. That’s why for instance, when a woman walking alone down a dark street is hollered at by a group of men, that her heart rate increases and she quickens her pace as she responds to her anxiety. These are empathic reactions to a potentially dangerous situation. Those guys hollering at her are very aware of her response to their whooping. They use their understanding of empathy in order to get this reaction, most likely for some sadistic pleasure. So empathy is an important tool we have to gauge signals from others in order to know how best to respond to them. As the above example shows, empathy can be used for both good and bad purposes.

My previous example is a very clear way in which we can understand empathy. It doesn’t require much in the way of thought to recognise these signals and act accordingly. What I have found particularly fascinating is the more subtle forms of empathy we experience in our everyday lives. These are not the extreme or dangerous situations that occur, but very often the environments where we feel most comfortable, such as at work or with our friends. Most of us know how to behave in a social situation apart from say the most unconscious of people. What was surprising for me, was just how little I was aware of my emphatic feelings in these situations. There is a surprising amount of passive aggression and self-attack, even amongst so called polite circles. I know I have used self-attack a number of times in my posts, but it’s an important phenomenon to be aware of. Particularly since passive aggression cannot exist without self attack. The two go very much hand in glove with each other.

I had an experience at work, after the Japanese tsunami back in February. I don’t listen much to the news, so I wasn’t entirely aware of what had happened. Returning to work after the weekend I happened to take a look at the BBC website and was pretty shocked to hear that 2,000 bodies had been found washed ashore in the wake of the disaster. When I turned to my colleague and expressed my horror he then told me about a friend he had in Japan whose bar had been washed away with the wave. I felt some sympathy for his friend and asked him how he was coping. He replied, ‘well he is fine, but some of his customers keep floating in from time to time’. My reaction was to laugh, but not because I thought it was funny. In fact I was pretty annoyed by him and I think for good reason. Now, not let it be said that Patrick doesn’t have a sense of humour, I do and it can be as dark as the next persons. But wow did I feel like a dickhead for a brief moment after his last comment. Within the space of three minutes I had heard about a truly horrific story of mass carnage. Only to be lured into a colleague’s story about a fictitious friend who was caught up in the disaster, to then being swiftly rebutted by a poorly timed joke. I say poorly timed, as in a different situation I might have found the joke to actually be funny. Describing it as poorly timed also gives my colleague the excuse for being inept with his social skills, which he wasn’t I can assure you.

So what did happen in that interaction? Why did I find myself feeling conned and slightly annoyed? Well I think it’s interesting that I described myself as a ‘dickhead’, as it’s not a particularly nice way to describe oneself. So when I use a derogatory expression against myself, I always ask myself why? I believe this came down to two reasons. My colleague was entirely aware of what I was feeling the moment I expressed my shock to him.  If his experience of this event was to ask me not to talk about it, I would have understood and complied with his wishes. But no he preferred to prolong my experience further with his little story, whereby he would deliberately access my sympathy further. It was only upon his conclusion that I was able to fully understand his intention. This was to passively humiliate me for showing sympathy for such an horrific event. It was to infer that my feelings were stupid and inconsequential. Calling oneself a dickhead is a humiliating thing to say about yourself of course. But that was how I felt in that moment, ‘humiliated’. My response to laugh at his tactic was of course my way of avoiding further humiliation. This is because there is a clever play on words (language let’s say) when people use passive aggression. I say clever, when I really mean ‘stone cold’ genius. If I was to complain about what he said, his response would have been to say, ‘hey Pat, it was just a joke, no harm done’, which would have entailed me experiencing further humiliation for being perceived as overly sensitive. Because he wasn’t using direct (rude) language to humiliate me, he was able to be more subtle about his aggression towards me with relative impunity. However, I still felt annoyed and irritated by him, which would be the normal reaction with someone who had been more overtly aggressive. The second and perhaps most important reason I felt humiliated was because I already knew he would react that way. Why did I know? Well I had experienced him with other people around the office. It was fairly obvious this chap often used humour to humiliate people. So I had a swift lesson in learning not to ignore my empathy with people again in future.

To a large degree this is the culture we live in. People act out this kind of behaviour very often from an unconscious place. However, pointing out this bad behaviour in people allows them be evasive and direct blame back onto their victim. This is the part that is the most interesting of course, because it works. A lot of victims of passive aggression will usually blame themselves for their own perceived stupidity in being humiliated. It’s a bait and switch many of us probably learned in our childhoods. It’s a form of dissociation that shields us from the humiliating feelings. That’s why many of you are often convinced you didn’t feel humiliated in these situations. So it’s often futile trying to correct passive aggressive people, because many people will just support them regardless. To find out whether you yourself dissociate, then break down a similar experience to mine and decide for yourself.

Empathy starts with yourself first and then with others. It’s about asking yourself, how do I feel and then what do I experience from this other person or persons. Unfortunately it’s a process many of us have to relearn, which is why at first it can seem so insurmountable. Keep applying my method and you will eventually begin to become more empathic about yourself and the people around you. If you find yourself dismissing your feelings as wrong or bad, then you are dissociating. Feelings are never bad or wrong, they are a signal often from your unconscious telling you something useful. In fairness my method does require a degree of introspection, which in turn can be helped along enormously with therapy. Empathy is a very powerful skill that protects us, even enriches us. Understanding this skill to a higher level will help improve your jobs, relationships and life in general, so it’s well worth pursuing. As always, best of luck.

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Copyright © Patrick Tulley 2011 – All Rights Reserved.

Thoughts and comments are encouraged as always.

Pdf document:  Empathy

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PATRICK TULLEY: PHILOSOPHER, AMATEUR WRITER

My name is Patrick Tulley. I am primarily a philosopher and an amateur writer but also have been a painter and sculptor in the past.  My background has been quite varied, as I have lived abroad on and off during my 20′s, been in a number of different professions throughout my life. More recently, I have been working as a private consultant within the public sector.

Since philosophy is my preferred interest; it is always something I rigorously apply to all my thinking and writing. Whilst I am knowledgeable about abstract philosophy, I am not particularly interested in taking that route.  Philosophy is about the search for truth, it was always meant to be understandable by everyday people -this does not mean dumbing down the ideas of course.  It just means I do not allow myself to get sidetracked by too many inconsequential arguments, often referred to as lifeboat scenarios.  I tend towards the more Aristotelian and Socratic methods of philosophy, but I also have interests in Hume, Nietzsche and Rand.  Philosophy has been a wonderful and fulfilling part of my life; it’s often been a very misunderstood subject -which I hope to discuss in future posts.  I also enjoy reviewing art, literature, music and passing comments on culture, news and personal experiences that I have found both interesting and enlightening.  I do not have a particular interest in politics –however; I may discuss my reasons with you sporadically throughout this blog.  Overall, this is hoped to be a journal about a philosophical life.  I hope you will enjoy my outlook on things and look forward to hearing your comments and thoughts along the way. I would also like to thank Ozlem for giving me this opportunity to have a voice on her blog.

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Disclaimer; whilst we (guest bloggers and I) do not set about to intentionally upset visitors to the site; I understand some of the topics discussed/raised may touch nerves.  Please note I will do my utmost to screen these posts before I post them however; I do believe in freedom of speech and I would hate to limit someone because they think differently to me or have different values from mine.  Therefore, I urge you to have some understanding and an open mind before jumping in and causing a scene without it being constructive.  Like I said, Patrick and I do have difference of opinions and on most cases we agree to disagree but at the same time we also respect the others’ thoughts and views -after all we do live in a civilized world; with this in mind I hope we will have more cultivated and engaging discussions.  One last note to all:  Here on yikici I have aimed to keep posts and discussions clean; I am not a fan of words that are disrespectful and disparaging therefore, I will not condone its’ use here on yikici; I do hope you share my views on this –if not, at least can respect them.

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Thoughts and comments are encouraged as always.

Pdf document:  Empathy 

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~ by Patrick Tulley on July 17, 2011.

7 Responses to “Empathy”

  1. Great discussion here Patrick. This is a topic that so often fumbles people so I am glad somebody is tackling it. I liked and understood the examples you used and I also appreciated how you weaved into this the abnormal/abusive side of some people and how this relates to the discussion.

  2. Thanks Joey.. yes understanding when we actively decide to ignore our empathic feelings are an important part of improving our relationships I feel.. Thanks for your comment..

  3. Patrick, thanks for sharing these thoughts on empathy! I had a thought about the office scenario that you offered. At first, I thought, “why is it humiliating to be sympathetic?” And I felt anger at your use of the word “overly sensitive” and thought that “that was the bully’s theory, not your own”. Then I thought, “the reason it is humiliating is not fundamentally because of the bully, but because the other people in the office will side with the sadist over the victim”. If you two were one-on-one, I don’t think that that would be as much of a humiliation-provoking experience, though you, or anyone, might still react with a dark laugh to cover up your hurt. So it is humiliating because of everyone else, otherwise you could confidently get angry at his stab at your vulnerability, and express your disapproval. So is it the bully’s or the victim’s that allow this to go on? Seems like once were adults, that it might be the victims. What do you think of that?

  4. Kyle, I apologize in advance as I know you are talking to Patrick, but just for myself I wanted to ask some questions for clarification.

    Could you reiterate your understanding of the examples Patrick was giving as it concerns showing sympathy around the office? I think perhaps you and I understood the example differently.

    “So is it the bully’s or the victim’s that allow this to go on? Seems like once were adults, that it might be the victims. What do you think of that?”

    That’s an interesting conclusion, that the victims allow this to go on. Can you tell me why you think this is the case? Using Pat’s example, how did Pat as a victim allow this to go on?

    Thanks Kyle.

  5. Hi Joey, happy to clarify. I apologize for what I think the confusion might be, I apostrophized the word “bully” and “victim” in that statement, when I meant them to be plural terms. So I did not mean to say that Pat allowed the bully’s actions to continue without confrontation, but rather that because his coworkers are themselves intimidated by the bully to the point where they would not support Pat in voicing his anger at the bully’s bait and switch, that that is why Pat anticipated a humiliating experience occurring from hypothetically “standing up for himself”. If Pat’s other coworkers were sympathetic towards Pat being emotionally tricked by the bully, then Pat would feel supported in his outrage, but because he knows that his coworkers will side with the bully, in that Pat should “lighten up”, he anticipates a himself-vs-all occurring if he were to be assertive in his feelings. Because the bully would then appeal to others that Pat is overreacting, those others, afraid themselves to voice sympathy with Pat, would side with the bully, and then Pat will feel humiliated. I’ll leave it at that for now. What do you think about that?

    • Thanks for the further clarification Kyle and Joey for asking.

      Yes, discerning passive aggressive people is an important skill in learning to avoid them like the plague. Or at the very least learning how to engage with them, which doesn’t feed into their dysfunction. Easier said than done, as my story illustrates.. 🙂

  6. Thanks for the clarification Kyle. I think I understand you now. Since it was originally addressed to Patrick I will let you address your comments.

Comments are closed.

 
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