To Heal the Human Heart
by Robin Grille
Posted July 11, 2021
We grapple with empathy simply because we have yet to fully understand it. When we think that empathy has landed us in hot water, this is because we have not fully grasped its complexities and limitations. In defence of the vital function of empathy and its central role in human society, I would like to propose ten limitations and misconceptions that relate to human empathy. I believe it is these limitations that have caused some writers to be critical of empathy itself.
Caring behaviour – or what looks like caring behaviour on the surface – is not always necessarily driven by empathy. Sometimes helpful behaviour can be motivated by guilt, or the desire to gain approval or kudos. Sooner or later the difference becomes apparent, and the difference is big! Narcissistically driven ‘kindness’ is quickly extinguished when the external rewards – such as praise or congratulations – fail to materialize. It’s important to distinguish narcissistically-driven from authentic helpfulness, so that empathy does not get a bad name.
Empathy often gets confused with pity. What sets empathy apart from pity is that in empathy we don’t necessarily view the other person as powerless in the face of their predicament. The experience of empathy might move us to be helpful or supportive, without seeing the other person as a victim of their circumstance. Pity, on the other hand, is more likely to drive rescuing behaviour. More…