Today, 15 years later, I know why my attempt at consoling my friend was so ham-fisted. As LaBier explains, virtually everyone learns the basics of empathy in childhood (from our parents comforting us when we're in distress), but my father died when I was 4, and afterward my mother had to be very can-do, juggling three jobs, graduate school, and two kids. When I was upset, she never said, "Oh, I'm sorry. It must be hard to have me away so much after losing your dad." Instead, on good days, she'd say, "Why are you crying? Nothing is wrong." And on bad days: "You'd better toughen up, because life can get a lot worse." Looking back at my 20-something self, I realize that if, as LaBier says, empathy is "the ability or the willingness to experience the world from someone else's point of view," I wasn't brought up to be able to do that.
At least my lack of empathy was not unusual. Having practiced as a psychotherapist for 35 years, LaBier believes that what he calls empathy deficit disorder (EDD) is rampant among Americans. LaBier says we unlearn whatever empathy skills we've picked up while coming of age in a culture that focuses on acquisition and status more than cooperation, and values "moving on" over thoughtful reflection. LaBier is convinced that EDD is at the heart of modernity's most common problems, macro (war) and micro (divorce).
When Lisa crept into her bedroom, I couldn't have articulated any of this. She might have felt abandoned, but all I knew was that I felt alone. My roommate had her dog, and they were both shunning me, and my boyfriend of four years wouldn't rescue me from the loneliness I increasingly felt by agreeing to get married. I went into psychotherapy.
I thought my therapist would help me break up with my commitment-phobic lover, figure out how to choose less sensitive friends, and, of course, let me rant about my mother's shortcomings. I did get to rant—about my mom, Lisa, and my boyfriend.
What surprised me was my therapist's response to these tirades. She never said, "Leave that rotten bastard." Or "Your roommate is a big baby." Instead she said, "Gosh, that sounds really hard." And, "That must have felt terrible." And, "How did you feel after that happened?" My reaction to those spectacularly bland comments was even more astonishing. I loved them.
"These very simple responses make you feel understood," says New York psychologist Frank M. Lachmann, PhD, author of Transforming Narcissism: Reflections on Empathy, Humor, and Expectations. He points out that many of the common responses—"It could be worse"; "You should do X"; "Let's talk about something else"—appear to be kind and aimed at soothing. But no matter how well-intentioned, Lachmann says, these remarks are a rejection, a denial, of what the other person is going through. "They are code for 'Don't confront me with things that are unpleasant,'" he says. "Or 'Don't bother me with your pain.'"
About six months into psychotherapy, I started using what I thought of as my therapist's "lines." When Lisa was offered a job at an organization she did not want to work at, I said, "Oh, that's a tough spot to be in." When my boyfriend was invited to study abroad, I said, "How do you feel about that?" What I really felt was: "Lisa, that job pays a ton of money, but I guess you can turn it down because your parents are loaded." And, "You selfish bastard, I'll kill you if you go to Europe without me."
Still, Lachmann says, I had taken the first step to becoming empathetic—which is faking it. If you want to act more empathetic, you follow certain steps: Instead of telling people what they ought to do, or becoming tyrannically optimistic, you offer sympathy, inquire about feelings, and validate those feelings. You'll be giving comfort to the other person, even if you yourself can't feel what they're going through.
We Hear You!