Sharing the Pain is Good

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Although we are hardwired for empathy, so many people indulge in selfish behavior. Our culture would be in a lot better shape if more people demonstrated empathy — and here are three skills that can help increase empathy.

Every morning that I drop the kids off at school, I am struck by the selfishness of many of the parents in the carpool line. They allow their children to take their sweet time getting out of the vehicle and sometimes continue conversations with them even when they’ve finally exited the car. These parents have little care for those of us waiting behind them because, of course, their desires are the only ones that matter. This never fails to irritate me especially since that is the message they’re giving their children as well. Great, just what this world needs: more selfish people.

Of course this is a minor example of selfish behavior but it certainly isn’t the only one. I could be wrong about this but it seems like American culture is degenerating into even greater levels of selfishness than we have previously had. You see it everywhere: cutting in line, driving in the HOV lane with only one occupant, being rude, demonstrating poor parenting skills, and doing things that you know will hurt other people. For example, I am simply flabbergasted when I hear people dismissing environmental concerns (like wasting our finite resources, poor air quality or overpopulation) because the Earth being destroyed won’t happen in our lifetimes, so why should we care. I am not often rendered speechless but when I hear people say things like that, I have no idea how to respond. How in the world (pun intended) can they be so selfish?

And these are things I notice at the local level. At the national level it’s even worse. Politicians and other leaders routinely promote policies that are good only for themselves. So much of our system is structured around what works for a small minority of people and not what is good for the overall country. The list of examples for this is long: our for-profit healthcare system, a tax code that favors the wealthy, the lack of business regulation, weakened environmental controls, the incredible sway of money in politics, a bloated defense budget that does little for peace or even military personnel, educational policies that shortchange students and punish teachers, a crumbling infrastructure, and I could go on and on. All of these things are selfish and have been enacted not for the good of the many but purely for the good of the few.

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So what’s up with that? Why are so many people incredibly selfish? If you think about it from a biological perspective, selfishness is shortsighted because we need each other to survive. If you consider it from a religious perspective, selfish behavior is immoral because we’re supposed to love one another. Christians even have the whole “Do unto others…” mandate we’re supposed to follow (other religions may have a similar directive but I’m not as familiar with their dogma). From a psychological perspective, research shows that cooperation may be hardwired into our psyches. Believe it or not, they’ve found that small children have a tendency to help. Thus, from all perspectives I can think of, selfishness is bad. So where are we going wrong?

The only thing I can think of is that we are suffering from a lack of empathy and prosocial behavior. Empathy is the ability to be aware of, understand and vicariously experience the thoughts, feelings and experiences of another person. Interestingly, this is a biological imperative. Research has found that even babies can sense the physiological experience of another and respond in kind, like when one baby starts crying when another is upset. Empathy then often elicits prosocial behavior, which is voluntary behavior intended to benefit other people or society in general. Of course, empathy isn’t always the motivating factor in prosocial behavior. People can do prosocial things in an effort to further their family line or because they have other reasons for doing so. In fact, one of my favorite episodes of the television series Friends is one in which Phoebe and Joey argue about whether or not there is any good deed that is unselfish (she finally does something that is purely for someone else’s gain but then feels good about it because it helped Joey). However, most of the time, empathy is what drives prosocial behavior.

So, if empathy is genetic, why are we not exhibiting more empathy and doing more prosocial acts? Well, here is where it gets tricky. Twin studies have shown that empathy is hardwired but, as with a lot of other things, it’s on a continuum. Empathy researchers believe that empathy is 2/3 genetic and 1/3 learned. If true, that opens up a whole host of possibilities. On the one side, you have someone who has all of the empathy genes plus was taught empathy and thus, is an incredibly empathic person. On the other end, you have someone who was born with none of the genes and who was never taught any empathy at all. That is a recipe for a psychopath. However, in general, we have people who fall in the middle range and, if empathy is not being taught as much as it should be, they’re going to float more toward the non-empathy end of the spectrum.

As a psychologist, I see the impact of this lack of empathy through what we in the counseling world call empathic failures. These are things like difficulty connecting with others, relational ruptures, inappropriate parental discipline or even something as seemingly minor as ineffective communication. Empathic failures usually occur because either one or both people are not putting themselves in the other’s place and things end up going nowhere. However, if you utilize empathy, these failures can be corrected. For example, early in my career, I was supervising a beginning counselor and it was not going well. She casually dismissed most of my suggestions and I was getting frustrated with our inability to connect. Finally, I decided to put myself in her place and approached our consultations from that perspective. Lo and behold, it worked like a charm! In my efforts to empathize, I found myself listening more closely to what she was saying and she relaxed once she realized she was truly being heard.

Although the bad news about empathy is that a lot of people in our culture are not exhibiting much of it (and unfortunately, many of these people seem to be in charge), the good news about empathy is that it can be taught. People who do not have as much natural empathy can be trained in how to experience it and those who have a lot of empathy from birth can enhance the amount they already feel. We can also relearn the empathy we may have lost somewhere along the way. It’s not even really that hard to do but it does take practice.

There are three basic skills for learning empathy: (1) knowing how you feel and being able to separate that from the feelings of others; (2) putting yourself in the other person’s place; and (3) expressing your sense of understanding. The hardest part of all this is, of course, being able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. However, with practice, it can become second nature and it should. Just think how different the world would be if families made empathy exercises part of their dinner time talk or if they insisted upon doing some prosocial behavior every week. Just think about the problems we could solve if kids were taught empathy in school and businesses encouraged prosocial behavior, both inside the company and out of it. As I said earlier, the world doesn’t need more selfish people. Goodness knows we have enough of those. What the world needs is more empathic ones. Once we can share our pain, we’ll all be in it together and the world will be a better place. Maybe then there won’t be so much pain to share.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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