Yale psychologist Paul Bloom wrote an amazing takedown of empathy in the Boston Review. You don’t need to feel another person’s pain in order to be a good person–empathy might even impede morality:
Strong inclination toward empathy comes with costs. Individuals scoring high in unmitigated communion report asymmetrical relationships, where they support others but don’t get support themselves. They also are more prone to suffer depression and anxiety. Working from a different literature on “pathological altruism,” Barbara Oakley notes in Cold-Blooded Kindness (2011), “It’s surprising how many diseases and syndromes commonly seen in women seem to be related to women’s generally stronger empathy for and focus on others.”
The problems that arise here have to do with emotional empathy—feeling another’s pain. This leads to what psychologists call empathetic distress. We can contrast this with non-empathetic compassion—a more distanced love and kindness and concern for others. Such compassion is a psychological plus … It is worth expanding on the difference between empathy and compassion, because some of empathy’s biggest fans are confused on this point and think that the only force that can motivate kindness is empathetic arousal. But this is mistaken. Imagine that the child of a close friend has drowned. A highly empathetic response would be to feel what your friend feels, to experience, as much as you can, the terrible sorrow and pain. In contrast, compassion involves concern and love for your friend, and the desire and motivation to help, but it need not involve mirroring your friend’s anguish.
This mirrors my recent experience with my mother. People naturally feel empathy for their parents, especially their mothers–you’re literally connected to her body for the first few months of your life. You learn to be a person by imitating and being imitated by her. To feel what your parents feel is normal.
Except now, my mother is in a nursing home and deeply unhappy with her life for very good reasons, reasons that neither I nor anyone else can do anything about. I felt her pain for a long time, and it damaged my life and turned our phone calls into stomach-churning ordeals. And did nothing to better her quality of life.
A few months ago, somehow, I managed to pull the plug, emotionally, and stop feeling the sadness and frustration and anger about her condition that I had been. The emotions are still there, I just choose not to … visit them. I cultivate an attitude of chipper detachment that feels horribly fake and a complete betrayal of everything my relationship with my mother has ever been. And it’s saving both our lives. I’ll take the guilt of being a Stepford daughter over the anguish of feeling too much any day of the week. It’s what my mother would prefer, too.
I’d be very curious to hear what any actors who read this blog think of Bloom’s essay (read the whole thing, it’s complex and fascinating). My sense is that actors are, generally, pretty damn in favor of emotion for its own sake. Emotion to actors is like sweat to athletes, someone said. Acting is difficult for me because I have a lifelong, learned habit/skill of pulling myself out of emotional situations. It’s why I’m a good advice columnist–I don’t get swept up in emotion. I hold back, I look at the big picture, I examine my reactions. It’s terrible for acting.
Speaking of acting, did you know there is such a thing as medical acting? Now there’s science theater! From Bloom’s essay:
Leslie Jamison makes a similar point in her new essay collection The Empathy Exams. Jamison was at one time a medical actor—she would fake symptoms for medical students, who would diagnose her as part of their training. She also rated them on their skills. The most important entry on her checklist was number thirty-one: “Voiced empathy for my situation/problem.” But when she discusses her real experiences with doctors, her assessment of empathy is mixed. She met with one doctor who was cold and unsympathetic to her concerns, which caused her pain. But she is grateful to another who kept a reassuring distance and objectivity: “I didn’t need him to be my mother—even for a day—I only needed him to know what he was doing,” she writes. “His calmness didn’t make me feel abandoned, it made me feel secure. . . . I needed to look at him and see the opposite of my fear, not its echo.”
I picked up The Empathy Exams at the library yesterday, and look forward to reading it and sharing my thoughts on it with you!