The Many Faces of Empathy
Angus* was nervous. It was our first meeting, and he shifted restlessly in his seat through our introductions.
He was a high achiever. He’d sailed through his undergraduate studies on a full scholarship and been recruited to a leading medical school, where he earned recognition for clinical competence and academic leadership. He’d accepted a top fellowship and was working hard, enhancing his reputation amongst peers and patients as a caring physician.
But that day was different. That day, he was struggling with a big question. He was no longer sure that he was on the right professional pathway. His uncertainty seemed to be growing daily. He lay awake at night consumed by anxiety. Having been so sure for so long, doubt had now brought him to the point of despair.
Halfway through our first meeting, we uncovered a phenomenon that deeply colored his life, had informed his early career decisions, and would clearly be important in the big decision he now faced.
This powerful insight emerged as we discussed his clinical practice. He recounted the emotions that surface when he helps his sickest patients:
His strong blue eyes filled with tears as he told me, “I feel their pain so intensely, Roddy, that sometimes I just have to look away.”
In this simple, powerful phrase, he revealed how profoundly his life is governed by empathy.
Empathy is one of Mother Nature’s greatest gifts, which enables us to build profound relationships within our respective social groups. It is the primal glue that holds us together. When we deeply experience the joy and pain of those we love and live with, we build indestructible bonds that ensure our survival as an individual, as a tribe, and as a species.
And scientists know a lot about empathy. We know where it resides in the human brain and the many associated centers of higher function that integrate it into our modern life. We understand how brain injury can disrupt it, and we know how emotional trauma can affect it.
And we also know that the impact empathy has isn’t always positive. In fact, it poses very real danger to human society. Many prominent researchers identify it as the root cause of political and racial polarization—something we see all too much of today.
You see, empathy is at the root of the “us versus them” phenomenon.
It selectively reinforces intense bonds between close social allies, sometimes leaving “them” (anybody else) on the outside. “They” then become the object of reverse empathy. Instead of love, trust, and harmony, reverse empathy leads to hatred, mistrust, and hostility. We’re seeing these sad consequences spilling out in all sorts of ugly social and political expressions both nationally and globally.
But let’s get back to the science of empathy.
Empathy alone doesn’t drive our choices and behavior. For this to happen, we need its close cousin compassion.
It is compassion that converts empathetic feelings into action. This is the difference between the many who walk past the destitute homeless man sleeping in the gutter and the few good Samaritans who actively reach out to offer him meaningful help.
Incidentally, this attenuation also holds true for the activation of reverse empathy. For both the good and the bad outcomes, feelings need to be translated into action, and only a few are inspired to convert hostile feelings into actions of hatred.
So, both individually and collectively, we need to work carefully to balance the upsides and downsides of empathy in order to benefit from Mother Nature’s great gift.
At the macro-societal level, we need to understand that love for self and family puts us at risk of alienating “them.” We need to understand how detrimental this can be as it comes back to threaten the sanctity of “us.” We need to foster in our children, through our own examples, the urgent need to understand and love both “us” and “them.” If we fail in this, one of Mother Nature’s greatest gifts will become our greatest downfall.
But let’s get back to Angus.
I know that empathy will be a constant and pervasive theme as we continue to explore his individual future.
On the one hand, I know that this powerful gift has driven him to choose a caring profession. He has followed the voice that deeply understands the condition of his patients. This is the upside, and both he and his patients are rewarded for his gift.
On the other hand, I have little doubt that we will soon discover that his empathy has also exaggerated the influence of the well-intended thoughts and desires of teachers, friends, and family on his early decisions. I am sure that his career choice has been influenced by a desire to appease their hopes and aspirations too. So, empathy has also become a prominent source of the immense pain he feels as he approaches his vocational crisis.
Angus must carefully pick a path between these two powerful empathetic forces in order to reach the fulfillment and happiness he deserves. Once he is clear on the healthy direction in which his empathy should lead him, he will again stride forward in confidence and joy.
The Neurocentric Coaching process will help Angus to identify the hidden (and often conflicting) voices deep within that drive his everyday decisions. When we’re done with our work, he will have the enduring clarity and self-trust he seeks to make and maintain this momentous decision.
I’m curious to see where the fresh insight takes him on his magnificent journey.
I hope that you, like Angus, will have the courage to look within, where magic happens and dreams come to life. I hope that you will explore the powerful role that empathy has played in bringing you to where you are today and, more importantly, how it can empower you further to reach the success you so richly desire and deserve.
*Names changed to protect privacy.
Dr. Roddy Carter, MD, has over 30 years of experience working across a range of medical disciplines and corporate settings.
At the height of his successful career, Roddy experienced a personal health and happiness awakening. During this profoundly transformative time, he began applying his deep knowledge of performance neuroscience to his everyday life. He discovered that, in moments of stress, the brain develops intricate psycho-protective adaptations to ensure our short-term survival; however, these adaptations often impose substantial residual limitations, create profound (and often hidden) distress, and prevent us from reaching our innate potential.
Today, Roddy is an executive coach and author dedicated to helping others unlock their full potential throughout their lives by applying compassionate neuroscience and sharing his unique approach to Personal Mastery™.