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A New Approach to Empathy: Fantasies

Posted Mar 25 2012 7:17pm

Years ago, I worked with a young woman who struggled with the concept of empathy. A trademark symptom of narcissists and sociopaths, she was actually neither, but was in fact compromised in her ability to “walk in another’s shoes” (a phrase you are familiar with if you’ve read this post or ‘Crazy’). Part of this was certainly due to her upbringing, which consisted of a predominantly “pull up your bootstraps” philosophy. And research continues to accumulate that suggests empathy has a physiological component as well, which means it’s entirely possible my client could have been physically compromised in this area.

On one particular session she revealed a rather striking discovery.

“In the past week,” she explained, “my friend lost his job, my sister had a miscarriage after only a few weeks of getting pregnant and a co-worker’s cat died.”

Normally I would anticipate a follow-up statement consisting of remarkably rational thinking that would completely bypass the emotional pain that often follows events she just described.

“My first thought was, ‘okay, bummer, but you’ll find another job, you can probably get pregnant again and although your cat was probably nice and cuddly, it’s not a living person and another cat will serve you just as well.’ But I’d recently been thinking about fantasies.”

Fantasies never fail to perk up an analyst’s ears, although it’s worth mentioning that, because of the sexual connotation associated with the term, people assume that all fantasies are positive. This is not required. Fantasies in the truest sense are simply events in the mind that have not come to fruition at the point of their conception.

“When I think about my life, which is almost 30 years old at this point, I don’t reflect much on the past. I look forward. I consider what my plan is for 30, 32, 35 and onward, and I can give you a detailed summary of what I expect life to look like at those times. Good or bad, these are my fantasies. But when I consider a fantasy and then ponder what I’ll feel if they do not come true, I feel an anxiety…here,” and she pointed to her abdomen.

“This got me thinking about my friend, sister and co-worker. I started to consider the notion that, beyond the practicalities of needing money, or the bond a mother has with a child even if he’s not alive, or the companionship of a pet, there’s a fantasy there. There is a distinct, palpable notion of what life will look like going forward with certain factors in play, even if they aren’t completely rational. And even though you can replace most elements in your life, that definitive mental picture must be altered when the life script changes. It simply has to, it can no longer exist in the way you want. And when I envision people struggling not because of people or jobs or animals, but rather because of the life they cannot ever possibly lead in the exact fashion they’ve constructed, I feel something. There’s a hurt at that moment.”

This was a method of self-inducing empathy that I had never considered, essentially using the future as a gauge of another’s pain rather than his present, as well as considering a life script of sorts rather than the tangible loss in front of him.

Our work together ended prematurely, as the woman left the city to pursue a new career, but I do wonder from time to time if her experience was a passing, “eureka!” moment or a more permanent realization. I’ve tried her method myself and, for the most part, it has increased my empathy with both friends and clients.

Here’s an exercise for you: the next time you struggle with empathy, try my former client’s approach. See if helps with your understanding of another’s pain, his experience, see if it’s easier to “walk in his shoes.” And then let me know how it goes.

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