Could It Be What You're Missing?
You may not realize
it, but a great number of people suffer from EDD.
No, you're not reading
a misprint of ADD or ED. The acronym stands for empathy
Nor will you find it listed in the American Psychiatric
Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental
Disorders, even though that tome has been expanding as
normal variations of mood and temperament have
increasingly been defined as disorders. I'm hesitant to
suggest adding another one. But this one is real.
Based on my 35 years of experience as a psychotherapist,
business psychologist and researcher, I have come to
believe that EDD is a pervasive but overlooked condition
with profound consequences for the mental health of
individuals and of our society. People who suffer from
EDD are unable to step outside themselves and tune in to
what other people experience. That makes it a source of
personal conflicts, of communication failure in intimate
relationships, and of the adversarial attitudes -- even
hatred -- among groups of people who differ in their
beliefs, traditions or ways of life.
Take the man who reported to me that his wife was
complaining that he didn't spend enough time with their
children, that she had most of the burden despite having
a career of her own. "Yeah, I see her point,"
he says in a neutral voice, "but I need time for my
sports activities on the weekends. I'm not going to give
that up. And at night I'm tired, I want to veg out."
As we talked further, it became clear to me that he was
unable to experience what his wife's world was like for
Or the computer executive who prided himself on having a
stable family life, then casually told me that, even
though he believed in the environmental threat of global
warming, he couldn't care less. "I'll be long gone
when New York is under water," he said. And when I
asked him whether he cared about how it might affect his
kids or grandkids, he replied with a grin: "Hey,
that's their problem."
Or the woman who works in the financial industry who told
me she's indifferent to how American Muslims might feel:
"I think they're all terrorists," she said,
"and would like to kill us all, anyway."
These may sound like extreme examples, but I hear
variations of those themes all the time. By breeding this
kind of emotional isolation, EDD is particularly
dangerous in today's increasingly interconnected, global
world. It plays out in ways both small and large: In
troubled intimate relationships, when partners become
locked into adversarial positions; and in warfare between
groups with different beliefs, such as Palestinians and
Israelis locked in a death grip.
Feeling Others' Pain
Unlike sympathy -- which reflects understanding of
another person's situation, but viewed through your own
lens -- empathy is what you feel when you enter the
internal world of another person. Without abandoning your
own perspective, you experience the other's emotions,
conflicts or aspirations. That kind of connection builds
healthy relationships -- an essential part of mental
EDD develops when people focus too much on acquiring
power, status and money for themselves at the expense of
developing those healthy relationships. Nearly every day
we hear or read about people who have been derailed by
the pursuit of money and recognition and end up in rehab
or behind bars. But many of the people I see, whether
therapy patients or career and business clients, struggle
with their own versions of the same thing. They have
become alienated from their own hearts and equate what
they have with who they are.
The net result is that we don't recognize that we're all
one, bound together. We only see ourselves. I sometimes
invite people to think of it this way: When you cut your
finger, you don't say, "That's my finger's problem,
not mine"; nor do you do a cost-benefit analysis
before deciding whether to take action.
You respond immediately because you feel the pain.
What's So Funny?
Recent research shows
that the capacity to feel what another person feels is
hard-wired through what are called mirror neurons.
Functional magnetic resonance imagery (fMRI) showed that
brain regions involving both emotions and physical
sensations light up in someone who observes or becomes
aware of another person's pain or distress. Similarly,
research shows that altruistic behavior lights up the
pleasure centers of the brain usually associated with
food or sex.
Just as you can develop EDD by too much self-absorption,
you can also overcome EDD by retraining your brain to
take advantage of what is known as neuroplasticity.
Similar research shows that as you refocus your thoughts,
feelings and behavior in the direction you desire, the
brain regions associated with them are reinforced. What's
more, changing your brain activity reinforces the changes
you're making in your thinking. The result is a
self-reinforcing loop between your conscious attitudes,
your behavior and your brain activity.
By focusing on developing empathy, you can deepen your
understanding and acceptance of how and why people do
what they do and you can build respect for others. This
doesn't mean that you are whitewashing the differences
you have with other people or letting them walk over you.
Rather, empathy gives you a stronger, wiser base for
resolving conflicts and trumps self-centered, knee-jerk
reactions to surface differences.
It puts you in a frame of mind where the words of the
Elvis Costello song resonate: "What's So Funny 'Bout
Peace, Love and Understanding?"
Douglas LaBier directs
the Center for Adult Development in the District. Comments:firstname.lastname@example.org.
Special to The Washington Post. Tuesday, December 25,
2007; Page HE05