Empathy Doesn’t Cut It

I have serious reservations to an article on empathy and its power to “change your life” in the January issue of The Lutheran, the magazine of the ELCA.  Empathy may indeed change one’s life, but depending on an understanding of its limits, not in a positive direction.  The article says, “Empathy is more than sympathy.”  “It makes us more human. It gives us an understanding of others and peace.”  As such it will facilitate your loving, and so your helping, others.

My response: nonsense!  Empathy may be human, and should be embraced as part of our humanity; however, it seldom leads to positive change for oneself or others.  What is most needed in the face of the needs and suffering of others, or their joys, is thoughtful self-definition and self–regulation in oneself, and a challenge to others that will engage and exercise their personal resources.

In a NY Times editorial of September 29, 2011, David Brooks focuses on the limits of empathy.  He notes the research conclusion of Jesse Prinz, a philosopher at City University of New York.  Prinz says, “These studies suggest that empathy is not a major player when it comes to moral motivation. Its contribution is negligible in children, modest in adults, and nonexistent when costs are significant.”  Brooks also notes other scholars who call empathy “a ‘fragile flower’ easily crushed by self-concern.”

According to Brooks Prinz argues that empathy “influences people to care more about cute victims than ugly ones.”  It leads to nepotism, subverts justice, and “leads us to react to shocking incidents … but not to longstanding conditions.”

Rabbi Edwin Friedman was even more suspicious of empathy; he saw it as “a focus on weakness or immaturity rather than on strength, an orientation toward others rather than toward self, and a way of avoiding issues of personal accountability” (Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix, 1999, 2007, page 134).  He argues that although empathy may be “an essential component” in a person’s, and especially a leader’s, “response repertoire,” there is no evidence that it makes one more responsible for their own or another’s situation or destiny.

As a matter of fact, Friedman suggests, empathy is most often a partner to a lack of self-regulation, and therefore the encouragement to invade the space of a neighbor.  Empathy without the limiting force of a well-defined and emotionally well-regulated individual acts like a virus: it is “reactive and very much like parasitic dependency.”  Thus Friedman scores the “fallacy of empathy.”

Empathy may very well be a component of a leader’s response repertoire. But it is self-, not other-, definition and emotional self-regulation that allows one to respond helpfully and lovingly toward others in a way that leads to their growth and future well-being.  Empathy, i.e. feeling with or sharing the feelings of another, is natural and appropriate, but it is not a component for helping others.  It does not nurture healing and growth in others.  It may very well encourage others to stay stuck right where they are.  Health and growth and resiliency in the face of difficult circumstances and continuing stress require our thoughtful challenge to others to do their own work and their positive response.  (See notice below.)



Systems Coaching LLC will be offering five one and one-half hour sessions introducing and exploring Bowen Family Systems Theory (see below) for leaders.  The sessions will be offered beginning in late February 2012 on Mondays and/or Wednesdays at a time convenient for those who express interest.  The venue will be near downtown Spokane. Cost is $150 for the five sessions.

The sessions will consist both of video and verbal presentations, including assistance in the construction of one’s own family genogram in order to facilitate the study of how one functions in his or her family of origin and its relationship to the other family, friend, and work relationships in his or her life.

Interested persons or those with questions may reply [below] to this message.



2 responses to “Empathy Doesn’t Cut It

  1. Perhaps you should submit a response article to the Lutheran on resilience as essential and life-changing.


    • Not sure it’s worth it. The only time people really listen is in the context of a meaingful relationship. Otherwise, they wrap one’s thoughts around their own meaning. Too cynical? Perhaps. But I think also accurate. Folks with whom I have a meaningful relationship received the message via the blog.


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