By Wynn Schwartz Ph.D
Behavior going right requires no explanation. Successful behavior is ordinary. Empathy is ordinary in the same way.
Empathy is a fundamental feature of emotional competence. In the average expected, good enough maturation, people naturally acquire empathic skills as they interact with others, but some circumstances and manners of parenting are more conducive to fostering empathy than others. We don’t always need to be empathic, but when a situation calls for mutual understanding, a lack of empathy requires explanation. Under normal circumstances, people make sense to each other, and when they don’t, we expect people to be able to figure out why.
Without the right degree of empathy, ordinary social interaction would be hard. Negotiation would be difficult. Moral discourse would be impossible. Improvisational play would be stilted, at best.
Empathic skill is a standing condition of normal personality, a competence required for engaging in social practices if those practices are to have the character of “flow”, attunement, harmony, or the dance-like features of improvisational play. Intimacy requires empathy. Love, work and play are based on this shared competence. When there isn’t sufficient empathic skill there’s pathology. Such deficits interfere with the ability to engage in certain vital relationships, especially where compassion and intimacy are required.
Empathy is the core of our intimate acts. Intimacy is understood as empathy plus a willingness to share vulnerability. In an intimate act, we let someone else see our most vulnerable features. Intimacy involves the risk and the hope that our vulnerability will be treated carefully and kindly.
We experience someone as empathic when they demonstrate that they appreciate our intentions and the significance of our actions in a manner that respects our toleration for being known. Empathic action requires an appreciation of what a person intends through recognizing their reasons for action, what they know about their relevant circumstances, what skill or competence they have relevant to what they are trying to do, and the significance of this performance to them. Empathic action involves acknowledging this without anyone feeling overwhelmed or violated.
Wynn Schwartz, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist and research psychoanalyst on the core faculty of The Massachusetts School of Professional Psychology and on the faculties of Harvard Medical School and The Harvard Extension School. He is a coeditor of Advances in Descriptive Psychology. He has been a professor at Wellesley College and has taught at the Boston Psychoanalytic Society and Institute and the Massachusetts Institute of Psychoanalysis.
Ordinary Empathy was originally published @ Freedom, Liberation and Reaction: Lessons in Psychology and has been syndicated with permission.