Living with Toxicity: Empathy and Its Absence


I cannot imagine the difficulty that faces those who inhabit the presidency. The tragedies that befall our communities, whether small or grand in scale, are hard enough to handle as private citizens let alone as someone whose job description requires that they respond in an official, representative capacity of national leadership. Who among those who are old enough to remember can forget the look of horror and disbelief on George W. Bush's face when his assistant gave him the news of the first plane hitting the World Trade Center. Similarly, I cannot fathom the depth of pain experienced by the parents who lost their children in the Newtown, CT school shooting and how difficult it must have been for Barack Obama to meet personally with each and every parent to offer his condolences and listen to them talk about their children whose lives were inexplicably cut short. Regardless of our political persuasion, I believe there is a fairly universal expectation for our leaders to embody empathy in their work with those whose lives are either extinguished too early or are irrevocably changed forever. Perhaps this is yet another reason why this presidency has been so terribly jarring for many of us. Our current commander in chief has no command of basic human empathy. In the days following the shooting at Douglas High School in Parkland, FL, the president had to hold onto a note card where the last numbered reminder simply stated, "I hear you." In the aftermath of the devastation to besiege Puerto Rico, he could be found shooting paper towel rolls like basketballs into crowds while the island had been without power for over two weeks and would eventually report over 1,400 deaths in the wake of Hurricane Maria. While there are many more examples of his lack of empathy both prior to and in the middle of his presidency, it is important to note that while some may struggle to define what empathy is, we certainly know what it is not when we experience its absence, especially on a stage as prominent as the presidency.

Empathy, roughly defined, has to do with one's ability to feel with another person and to be able to take on his/her perspective. The felt sense of another's emotional space is what is known as affective empathy, while perspective taking is often called cognitive empathy. Researchers believe that children come into the world wired for empathy and learn through the process of emotional reflection by their caregivers. As children develop, they either receive support from their major caregivers to pay attention to their own emotional states and those of others or they are forced to dissociate from their personal emotional states in order to adapt to their parents' needs. Those needs can be either disempowering ("You never do anything right!") or falsely empowering ("You are the smartest kid in the world!") for the child, both of which negatively impact the child's relationship to empathy. For many children, disempowering and falsely empowering parenting can lead to the development of shame and grandiosity respectively, both of which create an imbalance of empathy within the self and toward others. In many ways, we either become sponges for others' feelings or we develop a Teflon-like coating that prevents others' emotions from landing.

Few of us received perfect parenting as children. If we had, there wouldn't be nearly as many therapists in the world, most of whom find themselves in that chair because of the very dynamics we're discussing today. As any good couples therapist will tell you, the place where the empathy gap arises most painfully is in interpersonal relationships. In this place, the legacies of disempowerment and false empowerment often unite in the form of a couple who are perfectly wrong for one another. The fallout of formative years of disempowerment ("Stop crying, or I will give you something to cry about.") or false empowerment ("You are such a better listener than your father.") is a relationship where one partner feels like s/he has to adapt to the needs of the other or do the empathic lifting for both. The problem that arises is that the empath is often so used to adapting that they are prone to taking responsibility for the other's behavior (the essence of codependence) while simultaneously protecting that same person from their tone deaf and hurtful actions. It feels like a constant process of cleaning up after someone else's messes while simultaneously apologizing that there's a mess to begin with. It sounds crazy, but for the codependent partner it is primarily a maladaptive, historical way of being in the world that helped to maintain the equilibrium of the family system of which s/he was a member. The falsely empowered partner often sees him or herself as above reproach, has no sense of his or her own limitations/growing edges, does not relate to his or her shadow (and thus is vulnerable to shadow possession), and is obsessed with locating fault and blame outside of the self. In a word, they are shameless. These are people who may believe they do not participate in the existential fact of humanity's estrangement from their essential nature or, to use technical language, who think that their shit doesn't stink. The disconnection from their own humanity (good, bad, and ugly) prevents them from being able to truly feel with another because they are so busy maintaining a false image of perfection that to leave that pedestal would necessitate confronting the imperfection that lives in the hidden recesses of their being. They may be wonderful at expressing sympathy in the face of others' misfortune, usually in ways that bolster their image as helpful or supportive friends, but behind closed doors in the confines of intimate partnership, the codependent's experience of the toxic, falsely empowered partner is more likely to resemble condescension than compassion.

Brian and Cynthia had been married eight years and shared two children when Cynthia suggested that they see a marriage therapist. Brian reluctantly agreed to join her, and in the process of their first session Brian was put in touch with a distant memory that was particularly traumatizing, so much so that his tears took up the better half of the session. Cynthia looked on with no emotion whatsoever and appeared exasperated by her husband's emotional expression. Following the session, rather than expressing concern or empathy for what her husband had shared, she decided that Brian was broken and not worthy of her. Brian continued to attend marriage therapy with Cynthia over the course of the next few months, but it slowly dawned on him that he was the only one making any effort in the sessions, the only one doing the homework, and the only one who was seriously looking at what he brought to the relationship difficulties they shared. Eventually, the marriage therapist reached her limit with this unequal pattern and challenged Cynthia to either participate in the process or she was going to terminate the therapeutic relationship. Brian knew that the therapist was serious and tearfully pleaded with his wife to participate, but Cynthia could not think of even one way she contributed to her marriage's growing pains. The marriage therapist stopped the session in the middle of the hour and invited Cynthia to leave. Outside the marriage therapist's office, Cynthia glared at her estranged husband and with an air of saccharine condescension remarked, "I hope you find healing someday." While the words, by themselves, seemed kind, the tone and look on Cynthia's face scared Brian. The marriage therapist had finally seen what Brian couldn't see in his codependent trance and intervened to create the boundary that he could not. The weeks and months that followed would be painful ones for Brian as he learned more about himself and his soon to be ex-wife.

Narcissists often have a strange, one-way relationship with empathy. The very thing they are unable to demonstrate toward others is what they often request or demand from them. Faced with another's tragedy, many narcissists feel inconvenienced, uncomfortable, and often critical of the other's perceived weakness. In the fictionalized vignette above, Brian's admission that he played a part in his marriage's relational problems served to concretize Cynthia's longstanding belief that she had done nothing wrong. Empathy invites connection and identification with the other. When someone shares vulnerably about his or her imperfection, persons with empathy respond internally and externally in ways that communicate, "Yes, I know that feeling, and I am feeling it with you." Persons without empathy (or with otherwise limited capacity) hear such sharing as further confirmation of their specialness and/or as proof of the other's dysfunction with which they cannot connect. Often, they will evince a blankness externally that corresponds to the lack of connection internally or, for higher functioning covert narcissists, will attempt to simulate what they have seen others do in similar situations but with a similar lack of congruence internally. Either way, the connection is inauthentic and—for all intents and purposes—functionally absent. Yet, when faced with their own struggles, they expect others to shower them with empathy and compassion because they are the true victims. The profound irony of a narcissist's demand for empathy is obvious.

Simply look at our country's current political circus, for example. How many times can one man decry, "TOTAL WITCH HUNT!"? This is really code for, "Everyone, I am being so unfairly treated! I deserve your sympathy and compassion. How could you ever think I would do anything wrong?" The only thing narcissists eat up more than others' adulation is their sympathy or empathy. This is often why they will take on the mantle of either "poor little old me," or a false appropriation of bravery, which is nearly always a cover for confounding cowardice. The fuel that keeps the pathological manipulation machine running is often the overdeveloped empathy of others who truly (and often tragically) believe that the other approaches the relationship from a similar place of integrity, responsibility, and empathic capacity. When it becomes abundantly clear that the other is either unwilling or unable (that is the question, is it not?) to feel with another, it is time for that person to stop wasting his or her empathy on this person and to begin to redirect those energies internally. If persons (or a country) can show themselves empathy, can embrace self compassion, and perhaps even enact self-forgiveness, they are more likely to see how truly toxic their environment has been and the part they played in their own blindness.

Take heart, however. When the scales fall off and one sees, as if for the first time, what is real both internally and externally, it becomes imperative for such persons to help light the way for those who will come after them on the path. The hope is that we—as a nation, as partners, as parents, and as colleagues—will find a way to embrace the collective internal work necessary to not fall into the same hole in the sidewalk again. Empathy is a value worth fighting for, and there is no better time to reclaim its importance for political and personal discourse than the present.

Then—and only then—will we make America great again.