Redefining Empathy

Redefining Empathy

Originally published October 5, 2021

Many of us understand empathy as synonymous with compassion. However Dr. David Schnarch puts forth a definition that aligns more closely with the neurobiological reality of empathy, and I think switching to this definition is useful for gaining a deeper understanding of human behavior and relationships.

Empathy is a neutral term. It is the capacity that all animals with a nervous system have to read the feelings and intentions of others.

Rather than being a trait that some have and other don’t- short of being catatonic, empathy is understood as a universal animalian trait necessary for survival.

It is the way we are able to read anger on an animals face and know we need to run away.

Empathy then is branched off into two types:

Pro-social, and anti-social.

Pro-social empathy encompasses the ways that we utilize our empathy for fostering relationships.

It’s tuning into the state of another to facilitate connection.

Anti-social empathy on the other hand is using our empathy to hurt another in some way.

Motives for this are myriad, from getting pleasure at another’s suffering (such as schadenfreude), feeling powerful, deriving some kind of personal benefit, etc.

Both have survival-related puposes for humans.

Of course pro-social empathy is useful in creating cohesive relationships of solidarity, which is of the utmost importance as social animals who evolved to survive in cooperative community.

Anti-social empathy may have it’s evolutionary roots in activities such as hunting, or possibly in maintaining social order and norms.

In a hierarchical society, anti-social empathy is nurtured and cultivated: in order to climb the social ladder, or to assert a position of dominance, anti-social empathy is necessary.

Both pro- and anti-social empathy are inherent human experiences.

Distinguishing empathy from compassion in this way opens up our ability to grapple with a more complex and more accurate picture of human behavior and relationships.

It also provides us with the framework necessary to understand our own behavior and be able to align our behavior with our values with greater intention.

Redefining Empathy

Originally published October 5, 2021

redefining empathy

Many of us understand empathy as synonymous with compassion. However Dr. David Schnarch puts forth a definition that aligns more closely with the neurobiological reality of empathy, and I think switching to this definition is useful for gaining a deeper understanding of human behavior and relationships.

Empathy is a neutral term. It is the capacity that all animals with a nervous system have to read the feelings and intentions of others.

Rather than being a trait that some have and other don’t- short of being catatonic, empathy is understood as a universal animalian trait necessary for survival.

It is the way we are able to read anger on an animals face and know we need to run away.

Empathy then is branched off into two types:

Pro-social, and anti-social.

Pro-social empathy encompasses the ways that we utilize our empathy for fostering relationships.

It’s tuning into the state of another to facilitate connection.

Anti-social empathy on the other hand is using our empathy to hurt another in some way.

Motives for this are myriad, from getting pleasure at another’s suffering (such as schadenfreude), feeling powerful, deriving some kind of personal benefit, etc.

Both have survival-related puposes for humans.

Of course pro-social empathy is useful in creating cohesive relationships of solidarity, which is of the utmost importance as social animals who evolved to survive in cooperative community.

Anti-social empathy may have it’s evolutionary roots in activities such as hunting, or possibly in maintaining social order and norms.

In a hierarchical society, anti-social empathy is nurtured and cultivated: in order to climb the social ladder, or to assert a position of dominance, anti-social empathy is necessary.

Both pro- and anti-social empathy are inherent human experiences.

Distinguishing empathy from compassion in this way opens up our ability to grapple with a more complex and more accurate picture of human behavior and relationships.

It also provides us with the framework necessary to understand our own behavior and be able to align our behavior with our values with greater intention.

You can’t address issues you can’t see and don’t have language for.

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