I had a conversation with a neighbor a few days ago. He was relaxing on a zero gravity chair on a beautiful early summer evening. I stopped to say hi. He stopped to let me know about all the trouble in the world.
His golf game hadn’t gone well. Neither had Texas. Police weren’t doing their job, people were losing everything in floods in New York.
I was reminded of visits to my father’s aunt’s house when I was young. She lived in a Chicago suburb similar to the one we lived in. The only difference was that she obsessed over crime reporting and was afraid to leave her house.
Temper Your Empathy, Train Your Compassion
The next day I re-listened to an interview with Rutger Bregman, author of on The One You Feed. Humankind: A Hopeful History. The part about empathy and compassion starts at 45:02 if you’d like to listen. Here’s my paraphrase/condensation of Bregman’s answer.
When I use the word empathy, what I mean is this capacity that humans have to imagine ourselves in someone else’s shoes, to really feel on an emotional/mental level what other people are feeling.
And a lot of people think that empathy is the solution to so many of our problems. And for a long time I also believed that indeed empathy is the answer, but I changed my mind.
What Paul Bloom shows in the book Against Empathy is that empathy is not some light that lights up the world and lets you see everything clearly, it’s more like a spotlight or searchlight that helps you focus on one person or one group while the rest of the world fades into the background.
Why is it problematic? Because we just give too much attention then to that one person or one group.
If you think about the Middle East, for example, in many ways, there’s too much empathy there and not enough distanced rational compassion where people try to zoom out a little bit. What happens? The Palestinians commit an attack and there are victims on the Israeli side and there’s obviously a lot of empathy for the victims. People who feel more empathy want more vengeance. So there’s an attack from the Israelis on the Palestinians and there are again a lot of casualties. And people feel a lot of empathy for the victims and it goes on and on and on.
So the problem there is not a lack of empathy. People feel an ENORMOUS amount of empathy for the victims. ENORMOUS! and that’s why they want action.
What happened after 9/11 in the US? It was like a TSUNAMI of empathy. And we all know what happened after that.
What we need here is something different.
What scientists have shown us is that there is a really distinct phenomenon that we call compassion. We can even see it in the brain. When people feel compassion, a different part of the brain lights up.
As a parent, when your kid is afraid of the dark, you don’t want to feel empathy. You don’t want to be afraid of the dark as well. You just want to sit next to the kid and comfort the kid and say look, it’s fine, you don’t have to worry about that. There are no monsters underneath your bed, check it out, see, no monsters at all. That’s more the compassionate approach.
It’s more distant. It’s a bit more rational as well. You care about the person you want to help, so it’s also about love. You don’t allow yourself to be swept away by the suffering and the fear and the feelings of someone else. You recognize, “Look, what you feel is what you feel, and I recognize it and I see you and I want to help you with it but it’s not what I feel.”
The Co-Rumination Trap
Revisiting Bregman reminded me of a section from Ethan Kross’s book Chatter, on working with the voice in our heads:
To demonstrate that they are there to offer emotional support, people are usually motivated to find out exactly what happened to upset us—the who-what-when-where-why of the problem. They ask us to relate what we felt and tell them in detail what occurred. And though they may nod and communicate empathy when we narrate what happened, this commonly results in leading us to relive the very feelings and experiences that have driven us to seek out support in the first place, a phenomenon called co-rumination. Co-rumination is the crucial juncture where support subtly becomes egging on. People who care about us prompt us to talk more about our negative experience, which leads us to become more upset, which then leads them to ask still more questions. A vicious cycle ensues, one that is all too easy to get sucked into, especially because it is driven by good intentions.
The most effective verbal exchanges are those that integrate both the social and the cognitive needs of the person seeking support. The interlocutor ideally acknowledges the person’s feelings and reflections, but then helps her put the situation in perspective. The advantage of such approaches is that you’re able to make people who are upset feel validated and connected, yet you can then pivot to providing them with the kind of big-picture advice that you, as someone who is not immersed in their chatter, are uniquely equipped to provide. Indeed, the latter task is critical for helping people harness their inner voice in ways that lead them to experience less chatter over time.
Time, of course, plays a role in our ability to offer perspective-broadening support to the people in our lives. Studies consistently show that people prefer to not cognitively reframe their feelings during the very height of an emotional experience when emotions are worked up; they choose to engage in more intellectual forms of interventions later on. This is where a certain art in talking to other people comes into play, because you must walk a tightrope to take upset people from addressing their emotional needs to the more practical cognitive ones.
I agreed with my neighbor that terrible things happened to people every day. I also said that for every terrible thing there are countless acts of kindness. I asked him which anonymous act of kindness he wanted to perform. He mentioned his work with the Oregon Food Bank but had to cut our conversation short. It was coming up on 7:00 p.m. and he and his neighbor rang a tribute to essential workers to show their appreciation during the pandemic.
What act of kindness would you like to perform? Please share in the comments.