Virtually everyone learns the basics of empathy in childhood (from our parents comforting us when we're in distress), but my father died when I was 4, and afterward my mother had to be very can-do, juggling three jobs, graduate school, and two kids. When I was upset, she never said, "Oh, I'm sorry. It must be hard to have me away so much after losing your dad."Instead, on good days, she'd say, "Why are you crying? Nothing is wrong." And on bad days: "You'd better toughen up because life can get a lot worse." Looking back at my 20-something self, I realize that if, as LaBier says, empathy is "the ability or the willingness to experience the world from someone else's point of view," I wasn't brought up to be able to do that [emphasis added].At least my lack of empathy was not unusual. Having practiced as a psychotherapist for 35 years, LaBier believes that what he calls empathy deficit disorder (EDD) is rampant among Americans.
LaBier says we unlearn whatever empathy skills we've picked up while coming of age in a culture that focuses on acquisition and status more than cooperation and values "moving on" over thoughtful reflection. LaBier is convinced that EDD is at the heart of modernity's most common problems, macro (war) and micro (divorce). (“Empathy Deficit Disorder—Do You Suffer From It?”, CNN, June 18, 2008)
[According to the research of C. T. M. Tisot, 2014] a few parenting practices . . . contribute to the development of empathy in children. These practices include encouraging the child to imagine the perspectives of others and teaching the child to reflect on his or her own feelings. . . . Paternal warmth was found to be significantly important . . . especially in boys.
Empathy can be disrupted due to trauma in the brain such as a stroke. In most cases empathy is usually impaired if a lesion or stroke occurs on the right side of the brain. In addition to this it has been found that damage to the frontal lobe, which is primarily responsible for emotional regulation, can impact profoundly on a person’s capacity to experience empathy toward another individual. People who have suffered from an acquired brain injury also show lower levels of empathy according to previous studies. In fact, more than 50% of people who suffer from a traumatic brain injury self-report a deficit in their empathic capacity.
- Two earlier articles of mine that are "obliquely complementary" to this one are “How ‘Evil’ Is Evil?” (2002) and "Can You Help a Narcissist Become Less Self-Absorbed?" (2016).
- If you could relate to this post and think others you know might also, please consider forwarding them its link.
- To check out other posts I’ve done for Psychology Today online—on a broad variety of psychological topics—click here.