Empathy is as Essential as Oxygen
This month's blog article was featured in the November 2019 issue of our digital newsletter, Aspire Wire. To receive future Aspire Wire emails, please subscribe here.
by Brett Mulder, PsyD
MGH Aspire Director of Teen and Adult Services
A few years ago, I distinctly remember my son, at the age of 3, tripping while running around rambunctiously at a park. Another child, about his same age, saw him fall and immediately came up to him asking if he was ok. Seeing this young child respond empathetically to my son caught me by surprise. I was amazed by this reaction because the ability to empathize is not typically taught at such a young age, but rather reflects how a child perceives others and the world around them.
The word “empathy” was first used in the German language in the 1850’s, by philosophers who aimed to describe what it is like to experience a work of art. The word in German was “einfuhlung” which translates to English as “feeling into.” Imagine sitting in a dark movie theater, immersed in an engaging and exciting film being shown on a very large movie screen. As you become engrossed with the characters and events, your emotions get drawn into the twists and turns of the plot. There are collective moments when the audience gasps, shrieks or laughs in concert with the film. This experience of understanding and imagining the characters’ thoughts and feelings while being fully absorbed in the story is perfectly captured by the word “einfuhlung.” The word “empathy” was translated into English around 1910. Our English understanding of the word has since come to mean “feeling with,” in its use in psychology and everyday speech.
I frequently reflect on the importance of empathy in the various roles of my professional and personal life. The psychiatrist Heinz Kohut wrote extensively on empathy. A paraphrasing of his thinking involves the recognition that just as oxygen is essential for our physical survival, empathy is essential for our psychological survival . During the MGH Aspire summer programs, I had the privilege of leading parent groups and I often started by leading a discussion about what it feels like to be a parent of a neurodiverse teen. I often wonder what it is like to be a teenager, navigating through a world that many times does not understand different ways of processing information or different ways of experiencing lights, sounds, tastes or smells. I wonder what it is like for an adult interviewing for jobs with an employer who hasn’t yet discovered the unique talents of neurodiverse employees or how to have a more inclusive and accessible workplace.
We need empathy just as much as we need oxygen. It sounds like such a therapist thing to say. Yet without it, our capacity to pay attention to another person’s emotions, needs and preferences atrophies. Without it, we become fragmented and isolated, and we lose our connections to one another. In the absence of empathy, we also lose the ability to have compassion for ourselves.
It feels equally essential that we receive that same empathy in return. The psychiatrist Harry Stack Sullivan would meet with clients for therapy and physically turn the chairs in the room so that they weren’t facing towards each other but looking out at the world together. That sense of feeling with another person allows us to connect with a concern, struggle, or success; allows us to feel into a shared space where the world looks a certain way and doesn’t have to be experienced alone. By having relationships and spaces where we can both give and receive empathy we nurture those parts of ourselves that allow a 3-year-old to ask, “Can I help?”
Reference : Ghaemi, N. (2011). A First Rate Madness: Uncovering The Links Between Leadership and Mental Illness., The Penguin Press.