on empathy…

Posted on Wednesday 27 May 2009

Some 50 years ago, there was a flurry of writing in the psychoanalytic literature about the uniquely human process we call empathy. All of the writings distinguished empathy from sympathy, the latter implying a positive connection with the plight of another person. empathy, on the other hand, is about experiencing something of the emotional life of another person. Ralph Greenson, a psychoanalyst from California, described the process as having several stages. First, one builds an "internal model" of the other person based on what you see and hear and know about that person. Next, you identify with "the model" – "if I were this person, with their story, doing these things, what might be going on with me? what might I feel?" Finally, one detaches from identifying with the "model" and looks at what you’ve learned. An example from last week:
In my retirement volunteer job at a clinic for children and adolescents, I had seen a high school sophmore, a likely Gay woman, quite bright, who was at war with her parents. They had betrayed her when she was younger in a variety of ways, and the family had been in a state of seige for years., and the girl was "living for the day" she could leave home. The story was complicated by their religious fundamentalism [re "Gay"] and her parents fear of her taking medicine for an obvious attentional problem. The girl was hostile, "acting out," and "acting up." We had recently convinced the parent to let us try medications, and the result was dramatic – "I made a 100 on a math test. Never did that before!" In spite of an I.Q. of 125, this girl had a dismal sub-C average.

To our surprise, we got a call from the mother that the girl had had a "meltdown" on the way home from school not long after she was started on medication, something she was happy about. The mother reported that the girl was in utter dispair about her life, crying, suicidal. She had no idea herself why she had gotten so upset. I asked about the day. Nothing much had gone on. It was the last week of school. They’d had assembly and had gotten out early.
I knew she should have been happy. She’d been almost ecstatic about how much the medication helped her concentrate. She had looked forward to school being out. I think she was glad we were working with her in the clinic, and she felt somewhat understood – had an ally in her situation with her parents. I had seen her enough to have something of a "model" of her life in my mind. But the process of "if I were she, and this happened, what might be going on?" yielded little except to wonder again about that day. What had happened?
I asked, "What was the assembly about?" She said, "Oh nothing." I asked again. "It was awards day," she said. Then it was easy. She had just realized that she could do well in school after all [the medication]. And she longed to finish school to get the "Hope Scholarship" [free tuition to college for a B Average] as a way to get away from home. As she saw the seniors receive their awards, she felt the deep hole of her C- average, and how much it was the result of her distractability [untreated] and her acting out her anger towards her parents at school. Thus, her "meltdown. Neither she nor her mother had made the connection. It was "unconscious."
So, the process of empathy lead me to press about the events of the day. And the process of empathy lead me to her inner experience of awards day. In retrospect, it’s simple. Before the fact, it was a mystery.

So, President Obama wants his SCOTUS pick to have empathy. What that means is for the judge to be able to understand from the "inside." That means he wants a Hispanic lady with a poor background to be able to "get into the skin" of a rich white guy from Long Island who manages a Hedge Fund. You don’t need empathy to deal with people like you. You need it as a tool to understand people who are not. I don’t need empathy to understand the heterosexual guy getting an award on awards day. I was one of those. I need it to understand a gay woman with ADD who didn’t.

The Republican mockery of Obama’s use of the term betrays a misunderstanding of the process, and their reflex attack sarcasm. Why, I’ll bet an empathic Judge Sonia Sotomayor from Princeton and Yale might even be able to understand what it’s like to be a Republican shamed by their abysmal performance in office and zero approval ratings who may have dropped out of college [like Karl Rove] and is trying to get back in the saddle…
    May 27, 2009 | 6:52 PM

    Question of the day: do these Repubs really not understand the meaning of empathy? Or are they just cynically distorting the meaning to score political hits?

    They seem to “get it” with corporate executives, but as you say it doesn’t take empathy to deal with people like you. So maybe they really don’t.

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