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A person can regulate his or her empathy up or down by crossing the street. The empathy lesson is that if you can cross the street to avoid the beggar, regulating your empathy down, then you can cross the street (as well as use other methods) to expand your empathy, regulating it upward. So don’t tell me that empathy cannot be dialed up or dialed down with practice. That’s the point: practice.
Crossing the street is what happened in another story with which many readers are already familiar. The story of the Good Samaritan, one of the parables of Jesus of Nazareth, tells of two people who crossed the street, and one who did not. In the story, a traveler was waylaid by robbers. He is left for dead by the side of the road. The first two persons—the Levite and the priest experienced empathic distress, and, crossed the street, passing by the victim.
The Samaritan, however, was not overwhelmed by the victim’s suffering. The Samaritan perceived the suffering; he had a vicarious experience of the suffering that did not over-stimulate him with suffering and cause empathic distress. The Samaritan saw a fellow human being; recognized the suffering humanity; and he decided to get involved.
Multiple empathy lessons are available here. First, to regulate one’s empathy, cross the street. This is an edgy and confrontational way of putting it, but it is literally accurate. Cross the street away from the neighbor to “down regulate” your empathy, and experience less empathic distress; and cross the street towards your neighbor to expand your empathy in the direction of creating an inclusive community of persons, who recognize the value of cooperation.
The empathy lesson is that the vicarious experience does not have to be overwhelming. Rather, with practice, one is able to shift one’s focus from suffering to neighborliness; one is able to shift one’s attention from suffering to making a difference and enhanced self-esteem, expanding community and shared humanity.
Crossing the street is not the only way to reduce one’s chance of empathic distress or responding empathically. One may imaginatively changes places with the survivor and reflect that one would want the other’s help if one were in a similar predicament. One may spontaneously and without thinking act impulsively to be helpful, because one’s upbringing has made such responsiveness a habitual practice. (I believe this was the case with the Samaritan.) One may reflect, “I am safe and the survivor is no danger to me and it is my turn to help out.”
Or, on the contrary, one may make a devaluing judgment such as “The guy deserved what he got.” Such a judgment would be inaccurate—and in this case it would literally add insult to injury—but such thoughts do occur among by-standers. The passers-by may have just been hard-hearted. One person’s empathy is another’s antipathy. The language speaks volumes.
The empathy lesson consists in distinguishing such a devaluing thought; acknowledging that thinking is profoundly different than acting and should not be confused with it. The empathy lessons is to take action coming from one’s authentic commitments to building community through empathy, not devaluing thoughts.
This story is an empathy lesson that also instructs us in the difference between empathy and compassion. The Samaritan’s empathy told him what the other person was experiencing; his compassion (and ethics) told him what to do about it.
This bears repeating: empathy tells one what the other person is experiencing; compassion (and ethics) tell one what to do about it.
We are usually taught to devalue the behavior of the Levite and the priest; and surely they do not win a prize. Yet in an alternative point of view, they were all-too-human. Seeing all that suffering embodied in the survivor, they just couldn’t take it. They succumbed to empathic distress.
They experienced a breakdown of their empathic receptivity, and were overwhelmed in a kind of instant empathy fatigue (not compassion fatigue).
In an alternative reading of the parable, the would-be rescuers dial down the granularity of their empathic receptivity, so as not to be too sensitive to the suffering, even as they get a sample of the suffering, which is needed to inform their humanity.
The Good Samaritan, who is a seemingly infinite source of insight, is called to his empathic neighborliness by the distress of the injured traveller. The traveller who had fallen among thieves and was beaten near to death creates the possibility of empathic community by his loss of human well-being. He has been reduced to a lump of suffering, broken, physical pain.
The Samaritan rescues the traveller; the traveller humanizes the Samaritan, calling him not just to the role of an altruist doing a good deed (though that occurs too), but to his possibility as a human being in relation to another fragile, suffering, dependent human being.
The stricken traveller, by his very being, gives the Samaritan his own humanness. This occurs precisely in making the Samaritan a neighbor in answering the question, “Who is one’s neighbor?” Such was the trick question that the Pharisees posed to Jesus, to which this parable is the response.
The Samaritan gives humanness to the distressed traveller in an intervention that defines them as part of the same community of fellow travellers—neighbors—on the road of life.
In an alternative retelling of the story suppose that the Levite and the priest were “natural empaths,” biologically predisposed to be sensitive to the pain and suffering of other people. They were endowed with a certain “delicacy of empathy,” and they feel the suffering of the world deeply. Perhaps too deeply. Some people report: “I am a natural empath—and I suffer because I feel the pain of others too acutely. I started out being empathic—but people took advantage of me—and even when they didn’t, I was just too empathic; I got overwhelmed with sensation and sucked dry—the result was burnout, compassion fatigue. Nice guys finish last—so do empathic ones.”
Thus, the lament of the natural empath.
Empathy becomes a burden, because the world is filled with so much suffering. Yet if the person uses avoidance to “down regulate” their empathy, the person feels guilty because the individual believes that what she is doing is unkind, thoughtless, lacking in fellow feeling, and—unempathic.
So the natural empath falls into a double bind, and her suffering seems inevitable. She is over-whelmed by too much openness to the suffering of the other person or over-whelmed by guilt at not living up to her own standards of fellow-feeling and ethics.
These statements imply that empathy cannot be regulated through training, albeit a training that goes in the opposite direction (from too much empathy in the moment to less empathy) than that required by the majority of people, who are out of touch with their feelings and need to “up regulate” their empathy. The empathy lesson for the natural empath is to be more flexible about her ethical standards, while attempting to tune down her empathic distress.
Some people are skeptical that “natural empaths” are all that they say they are. Natural empaths in their natural state assert that they feel overwhelmed and distressed by other people’s thoughts and feelings. I see no reason to doubt such statements. However, to some critics, a redescription of the natural empath asserts that the latter are “irritable” and “hypersensitive.”
Empathy is recognizing and understanding the other’s perspective and then communicating that understanding to the other person. Someone who is unwittingly, even helplessly, swept along by the other’s feelings is not really being empathic. Over-identification, not empathy?[i]
The way out of this apparent impasse is to consider that the natural empath does indeed get empathic receptivity right in empathic openness to the other’s distress, but then the person’s empathy misfires.
Whether the misfiring is over-identification, resulting in empathic distress, depends on the description and redescription. Standing on the sidelines and saying “Try harder!” is easy to do. Where is the training the person needs when they need it?
The recommendation regarding training? Most people need to expand their empathy; some people—natural empaths—need to contract (or inhibit) their empathy. Empathy regulation—learning to expand and contract empathy—is the imperative in either case.
Instead of complaining about being an overly sensitive natural empath (however accurate that may be) do the work of practicing empathy by “down regulating” one’s empathy in a given situation, transforming empathic distress into a vicarious experience. Instead of complaining about not being pre-disposed to empathy, get up and do the work of practicing empathy, which for most persons means “up regulating,” expanding their empathy.