Monday, November 26, 2007

An interesting passage

Just read the following in Russell Banks' "The Darling":
I'm talking here about the difference between empathy and sympathy, between feeling for the other and feeling with the other. The distinction came to matter to me. It still does. When you abandon and betray those with whom you empathize, you're not abandoning or betraying anyone or anything that's as real as yourself. Taken to its extreme, perhaps even pathological, form, empathy is narcissism.
Ouch. That hits a little close to home for me, and I'm not sure what I think about it. I've always thought of myself as an empathetic person, most of the time. It suddenly came to me, after abandoning my novel, that this is one way in which my imagination runs -- in trying to understand and empathize with the feelings of other people. I've always been interested in human behavior, trying to understand the people around me. And I've also always been interested in the extremes of human behavior -- I want to know what turns someone into a serial killer, how people can form suicide pacts, why people join cults, etc. Part of this fascination, I suppose, is that I can't actually imagine any of this behavior myself. But I'm digressing from my main point.

I used to, before my depression was properly treated, genuinely feel the emotions that others were having. Even at the time, I knew that this was not helpful, because if someone is in the depths of despair, it doesn't help if you're there with them -- then they have to comfort you, in addition to needing comfort of their own. I still can be a bit of a mood sponge, or sometimes a mood reflector, in that others' anxieties sometime make me anxious and others' anger also makes me anxious. But mostly I now have what we like to call "boundaries" and I suppose, according to the passage above, that means that I sympathize now rather than empathizing. But I've always thought of empathy as feeling with the other, and I've always thought it was a good thing.

The comment about narcissism scares the crap out of me. I've been involved in different roles with several narcissists in my life, and they don't seem to feel any empathy at all for others. I've often thought that what separates me from them, and what draws them to me, in that "opposites attract" kind of way, is that I am extremely empathetic.

I'd be very interested in hearing other opinions on this -- not on me, but on the quotation and distinctions between empathy and sympathy.


John said...

RE: "...I've been involved in different roles with several narcissists in my life, and they don't seem to feel any empathy at all for others."

I agree. I think empathy OR sympathy, if genuine, is synonomous with compassion, not narcissism.

Catherine said...

I was leaving the Giant today when I suddenly thought "what about compassion?" with respect to the empathy/sympathy question.

I like to think that you're right. I think what Hannah is trying to say in "The Darling" is that if you really think you feel someone else's feelings, then you make it about you and not about that person -- that would be narcissistic.

Alison Hymes said...

Narcissism would be believing you know what others feel and believing it is the same as what you feel, absent any evidence that that is the case. Empathy is actually feeling some of what another person is feeling. At least that's how I've always thought about it. Putting yourself in someone else's shoes comes to mind. Boundaries are critical, but one can have both boundaries and empathy, in fact I think that's what makes for a great therapist. If you had had an interest that way I bet you would have been good at it.

Catherine said...

Thanks, Alison. When I first went to college, I wanted to be a child psychologist. Whenever I tell this to anyone, they're shocked. I studied psych for a couple of years and then dropped out and worked with institutionalized boys. It was a great job and I wound up staying there for four years before burning out -- by that time, I had seniority over everyone, that's how quick the turnover was.

And thanks for the reminder about narcissists thinking that everyone is feeling what the narcissist feels at any given time. I had forgotten that little problem.