The Repression of Empathy

Flickr image by Josep Ma. Rosell

I have written in a previous post about the conjecture that the human mirror neuron system forms the biological basis for empathy, and also alluded, in discussing pornography, to the role of empathy in sexual experience.

There are utterly compelling reasons to consider that empathy is a fundamental constituent of the experience of being human, a sixth sense without which our species would have failed miserably in its evolutionary struggle. Nevertheless, we repress and deny huge parts of this faculty, and relegate what is left to the paranormal or the unexplained. Even despite this, episodes of empathy characterize the life experience of all of us.

This repression takes place as much on the side of the person whose sensations are experienced by another through empathy as on that of the person experiencing those sensations vicariously. Why is this? We know, in fact, that we cannot hide our fears, sadness, anger, or other emotions from those close to us. But we can pretend to. We can enter into a Faustian bargain with the other, and this happens very often. I will pretend not to know what I know about how you are feeling, provided you do the same. I don’t press your buttons and you don’t press mine. Probably we all know many couples whose domestic life is characterized by silent cohabitation, with no conflicts apparent on the surface, but where you can cut the tension underneath with a knife.

Such a conspiracy of silence leads to a very deep alienation. The basic goal of connection that people strive towards in relationships is undermined. In fact we are still connected to the other. The human animal is always connected to its environment. But we must pretend not to be. Thus in the place where we most wish to realize union, we are most required to deny it. This is easily a recipe for spiritual death.

Responsibilities for this state of affairs are equally divided. On the one hand, people are of course afraid to let down their masks and show what they are feeling. On the other, people are also inhibited from showing empathy by the idea that feelings are private and that it is inappropriate and impolite to mirror these feelings, enquire after the person’s emotional state, offer support, or act on the mirrored impulses in order to alleviate the source of pain.

This is entirely misconceived, because emotions have a fundamentally social dimension. Human connection and sharing in emotions are part and parcel of the same thing.

When it is put to the person whose emotion is sensed that they are in a particular emotional state, they frequently also respond by denying this is the case. This again is most unfortunate. Not only does the person concerned miss an opportunity for connection and healing, but also we are all taught to mistrust our instincts to the point where we lose all alignment to them and forego, in fact, the basic drivers of our natural social behavior. The end of this process of reinterpretation is to relegate to the realm of the paranormal an essential aspect of being human.

We all need to recognize that we never interact with people without eliciting in them some flicker of perception of our emotional state. And really we want this state to be perceived. We should not lie to ourselves and, especially, not to our interlocutor, for whose own cultivation of this sixth sense we should have a great deal more respect. It is also a learning process and it relies on feedback and observation to be refined. If we have the slightest regard for our collective human potential, we should stop hiding behind our masks and provide that feedback as honestly as we can, by acknowledging our inner state, at least to those persons worthy of trust and who care for us.

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One Response to The Repression of Empathy

  1. wanealy says:

    Absolutely wonderful

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