Ep 374 – Against Empathy

Panel Discussion

Posted May 22nd, 2017

Heather, Jake, Tom and Glenn weigh the pros and cons of empathy – as informed by Paul Bloom and Brene Brown.





  • Listening to this (not done yet), but as a therapist, I’m already recognizing a missing piece to this conversation. I think the difference between “good empathy/rational empathy” and “bad empathy/emotional empathy.” What’s missing is self-regulation and mindfulness.

    When I’m in a session with a client, I work to experience enough of a client’s emotional state so that I can understand where they’re coming from. I actively also work to think about how that emotional state may impact how they see the world, how they behave, and their overall mental health. If their experience triggers something in me about MY experience or MY emotions, I usually write it down and spend some time reflecting on it myself. Self-awareness is key.

    The other thing that may inform this topic (unless you already covered it and I haven’t gotten to that part of the discussion yet) is Kristen Neff’s conceptualization of self-compassion. According to Neff, the three essential parts of self-compassion are self-kindness (instead of self-judgement), appreciation of common humanity (instead of feeling isolation), and mindfulness (instead of overidentifying with emotions). I feel like having strong self-compassion puts you in a place to favor useful empathy.

    • The process you describe of working to understand a client’s emotions and how they affect their perspective sounds exactly like theory of mind. It’s not that you work to feel their pain personally, but to understand their pain, is that correct? Bloom would call that cognitive empathy, (or useful empathy, as you say) and have absolutely no beef with it.

      All of those elements of self-compassion if applied to other people would fall squarely under the definition of rational compassion. And as you say would be a great starting point toward a compassionate disposition that doesn’t entail personally feeling the pain you hear about.

      Requiring a therapist to emotionally experience your trauma with you would be like requiring your oncologist to give herself cancer as part of your treatment. It might be weirdly gratifying, but unnecessary and cruel.

      • Yeah, which makes the title of his book so much more ridiculous. He’s not against empathy, he’s against letting your emotions get the best of you.

        • I wonder if he regrets the title. It’s attention getting. But it’s also been the Bain of his existence since he has to constantly assure people he’s actually not against Empathy on its common usage.

  • Ashley1313

    I enjoyed this episode and just wanted to thank you guys for all the work you put into the podcast. Perhaps I’m in the minority here but I really enjoy the episodes where you discuss topics that aren’t necessarily Mormon-centric and I feel that discussions such as this one can be very helpful when one is reevaluating their morals, ethics, and values (three pattern baby!) post religion.

  • Alli Kogelschatz

    You just needed Lindsey Hansen Park to remind you all, it’s all about validation (like she did repeatedly in that episode with John Dehlin and Trevor.) It killed me no one used the word “validation” for the first hour. I think this mental compassion is just another word to sincerely validate someone. And then maybe do so while staying within thought personal boundaries.

    • Ugh.

      The Brene Brown stuff is not really germaine to the discussion we were having and really wish hadn’t been included at all since it only creates confusion. Brene has an entirely different definition of empathy or “impathy”. She equates empathy with validation and sympathy with cognitive reframing or “silverlininging” as she calls it. This is a nutty definition of sympathy that i’ve never encountered in the literature before. In any case, we didn’t talk about validation because we didn’t go into the relative merits or complimentary potential of validation vs. reframing (which is part of cognitive behavior therapy).

      Under Paul Bloom’s narrow definitions of empathy and rational compassion that we were using, validation doesn’t even necessarily come into the case. One can empathize with strangers and even anonymous masses like hurricane victims or instead feel rational compassion for them without ever having the opportunity to validate their suffering. On the other hand, one can certainly validate the suffering of others when one has the opportunity regardless of whether one is feeling their pain or merely understanding it. Validation doesn’t require either empathy or rational compassion, but it can accompany either.

      Like I said, it’s a different subject.

      • Alli Kogelschatz

        I’ll be honest, I’m not familiar with Brene Brown (I kind of want to shake her though, is that wrong?) and I haven’t read Paul Bloom’s book. So I’m not necessarily concerned with their definitions, but am interested in this topic and their research.
        So I think validation is how you put rational compassion into practice. I don’t think you have to be in the same room as someone in order to validate them mentally. For instance, I remember using the word validation in my mind when I first learned about the Black Lives Matter movement. I definitely cannot literally empathize from my white privileged background. And feeling their pain to the point where I’m in a Jake-like state of depression sounds like no fun at all. But I can mentally put myself in their shoes and validate their concerns. How would I feel if I was more likely to be shot by police because of my skin color? I’m just validating it to myself. But the word seems applicable to me, and a reasonable way to describe what Paul Bloom means by rational compassion. I think I wanted this word used more in the podcast to describe how to put into practice what Bloom means. No John Hamer lesson needed, just practice validating people near and far.

        • I’d like to validate your desire to hear the word validate more. That’s a perfectly valid request. If you think mentally putting yourself in someone’s shoes is “validating near and far” then Just swap In the word validate for every time we use the word empathy or theory of mind in your head and you’ll be hearing validate as much as you need. Validate. 🙂

          • Alli Kogelschatz

            What the world needs now, validation, sweet validation.

          • Lolfr. 😂

          • Glenn

            Validation is something everyone wants from other people, right? It is certainly easier to be validated than to validate someone you disagree with. But I think the call for “more validation” is essentially the call for more “speech acts” like saying “how are you doing?” as a form of “hello” when you don’t really care enough to stop and talk about how the person is actually doing or taking any steps to do anything about how they might actually be feeling. It’s just a speech act. And speech acts are valuable in the sense that they portray an outward “kindness” or lubrication for social interactions — they help us get along and be more productive in social groups — but they are also super shitty because they are a form of lying — they create the impression of caring when there isn’t really that level of care.

            So to that end, what if we each let go of our personal desires to be validated, and instead simply focused on validating other people only. I don’t think that would last very long. Is this a value of dishonest social interaction?

            Next week on Infants on Thrones: Against Validation (but totally”for” deception!)

          • Alli Kogelschatz

            Ha! I’m on the edge of my seat for Against Validation! Is that coming before Book of Abraham, part 3? 😉 Your comment reminds me of the SNL Skit, Thank You, Scott https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QDydKwmrHFo

            It’s true that words can be empty, but that’s not what I mean by validation. I’m not able to validate someone without trying to remove my biases and seeing things from their point of view. And I think that’s how big change often starts. I mean, you can validate your partner in couple’s therapy by saying the right words while watching the seconds on the clock, but that’s not true validation to me. That won’t lead to change. Moving to a larger scale, if we are more likely to listen to our in-group/tribe, then it’s so important to change the conversations in our tribes. Yes, they’re just words. But words do lead to social change. When we validate others (not licking their balls, but real validation), then we are becoming more educated. And that’s how movements start.

          • Haha. I see what you’re saying (validation!), but I think there’s a middle ground. If you can’t validate a person’s perspective, you can at least help them feel heard. For example, if you can’t agree with Jake’s opinion about the Trump dossier, you don’t have to agree with his perspective, but you still can let him know you understand his position. “Okay, Jake, if I understand you right, you’re uncomfortable for these reasons. I appreciate the thought you’ve put into that, and I can even understand the process that lead you there.”

            Same could be said for TBMs. I completely disagree with my TBM wife’s beliefs about the church, but I understand them. I can even validate that where she’s at is a perfectly reasonable place to be given her life experience. That’s partially to her credit to, however, because she has worked to do the same for me. I think that’s the crux of the issue with validation. Human beings want to connect with other human beings, and that has to be done in a way that is open, honest, vulnerable, and reciprocal.

          • This reminds me of the paradox of authenticity. If people are “too honest” in an attempt to be authentic, they can really end up sabotaging themselves and alienating everyone.

            We sound like assholes when we don’t bother to apply a filter of what we think and what we say. I am definitely guilty of this… but fuck you guys. I’ll do what I want 😉

      • I’ve read two of Brown’s books, and empathy is really a small part of it. I think what’s really interesting is that, in my interpretation, sympathy is all about the person avoiding experiencing discomfort themselves. You don’t say “well, at least…” because you want the other person to feel bad. You say it because seeing someone suffer is uncomfortable, and a well placed “at least” can alleviate your own suffering. To me, that’s the big diff between empathy and sympathy. You don’t run away from discomfort. You hold the space and experience it, often while consciously taking the time to say “Yeah, this sucks. This is hard.” Being willing to be uncomfortable for the sake of someone else (while not getting oveeinvolved and swept away in it) is what’s most beneficial and powerful. That breeds human connection and understanding. It’s why exmormons just want their family to acknowledge their problems with the church and the challenges that come with leaving.

        • Well you’ve got me beat by one Brene brown book. We didn’t get into this topic of how best to console people, but we can now. It seems to me that validating experience and allowing or encouraging them to fully feel the pain of the grieving process–whether it makes you uncomfortable or not– is beneficial almost to the point of being essential. If you jump straight over it to “look on the bright side”, you may be setting them up for a longer period of repressed grieving.

          But at some point, reframing past pain as part of your narrative that you can live with and even chopping the monster down to size can be extremely useful.

          Which is why cognitive behavioral therapy identifies cognitive distortions by encouraging people to ask objectively “is this really the worst thing that could have happened?” “Is there any upside to finding this information out?”

          I would certainly not recommend starting your sentences with “at least”, but I also wouldn’t say validating someone’s pain requires the therapist to catastrophize along with them.

          • Totally agree. In my experience, a lot of people do one of two things in the face of difficult situations: they get sucked deep into their emotions (anxiety, depression, etc) or they shut their emotions down entirely (jump straight to “look on the bright side”). Neither of those is ideal, however, because they put the person in a skewed vantage point while they evaluate their reality. I have been surprised by the number of clients who find just having me listen to and validate their experience to be the only help they really needed in order to move on. They may say something like “You know, I finally have my head wrapped around this. Thank you. I think I’m good now.”

  • Blair

    Great episode, I just can’t believe nobody talked about the point of view gun from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy!

  • Friend

    The podcast suggested to me that the author frames empathy and utilitarianism in an oppositional light (i.e., concern for the one we empathize with may lead us to ignore statistically more important causes). However, empathy is perhaps more morally neutral — it can be a tool that is directed towards appropriate causes or not. Why, for example, could a compelling, empathy-provoking story about a person impacted by climate change not open a broader, utilitarian discussion about climate change among those who listen to and empathize with the account?

    On a Mormon note, many critiques of Mormonism are rooted in empathy. Discussion about feminist and LGBT issues, for example, often begin with personal narratives of how Church policies have caused someone pain. Subsequent online debate often goes something like “that person’s perspective is or is not valid because I can or cannot empathize with it.” I’d be curious to hear your views on whether it is productive to ground critiques of Mormonism in empathy. And, for those of us who do empathize strongly with the pain some Mormons experience, does that empathy misdirect or skew our perceptions of the Church?

    • Yes, the research shows that empathy favors the good of the one over the many. Although he’s not strictly utilitarian, Bloom does think the greatest good for the greatest number ought to inform our public policy.

      When those who don’t believe the truth claims of the church are deciding whether to stay or go, they do some of that analysis of the costs and benefits of the church In their own lives and probably informally the aggregate benefits and harms the church is responsible for. That’s a very interesting question, what is the balance of good and evil the church does? Hard to have that conversation if you can’t even agree on what constitutes good and what constitutes harm. But a utilitarian view would have to try to account for all the good the church does in terms of social benefit, substance abuse treatment/avoidance, humanitarian efforts, psychic comfort, etc and weigh that against the trauma, discrimination, sexual repression, financial cost, opportunity cost, suicidality, and on and on. It seems to me nearly impossible for those on the inside or those who have left to have a dispassionate, intellectually honest debate about that question simply because the stakes are so high for both as the outcome either validates or invalidates their life choices.

      • Friend

        I am struck when thinking about this discussion how much my own relationship to feminism and the Church has been shaped by my inability to handle the emotions occasioned by desiring or providing empathy. I used to write a great deal about feminism and Mormonism, but I gave it up because it was too emotionally exhausting to always be sharing pain, relating to pain, or being told that one’s pain is or is not valid. Around the same time that I was feeling emotionally exhausted by such discussions, I also began perceiving secular institutions as not really providing support to women in the ways that as a feminist I’d hoped they would. So I became simultaneously disillusioned and angry with both Church and its secular alternatives.

        I think in part because I could no longer deal with strong emotions I began to adopt a very utilitarian view of Church and other organizations. I think focusing on how I fit into the bigger picture has enabled me to feel a lot less anger and more open-mindedness towards organizations or decisions that may not be maximizing my well-being. It’s probably preserved my relationship with the Church because I try to account for all perspectives / factors when I start to feel annoyed, and then things just seem very complicated. That is, feeling less empathy has likely been a factor in pushing me towards staying with church.

        BUT, I think this utilitarian view has its costs. It makes it too easy to dismiss or excuse when organizations or decisions negatively impact me or others, and I’ve lost some of my drive and passion as a result. So, continuing to seek some sort of elusive balance between empathy and utilitarianism / individuals and the common good . . .

    • And yes, both sides appeal to the audience’s empathy by citing the cases with the most pathos. Absolutely.

  • unfilteredapostles

    This discussion brings to mind a fundamental economic problem – scarcity of resources.

    My take = It’s not that we shouldn’t at times feel empathy, but we can’t bear every burden. We have to (more) consciously pick and choose those moments where we spend that finite resource. This also relates to how we spend the time, talents, and means (with which a white bearded immortal has blessed us) In terms of activism and charity.

    This topic finds some parallels with something that has been on my mind lately. Comprehending middle-age and coming to grips with the limited time I have left to do shit. Don’t think that loss of faith doesn’t inform these musings.

    This conscious reflection has changed my mindset and actions in a few ways. Obviously I see time spent at church as an inefficient social investment. The costs that comes along with full engagement are too heavy. So I’ve downgraded that dutiful sense of obligation inculcated in me from my youth to further the kingdom to taffy pulling levels. I now try to more thoughtfully own my own choices without respect to the proclaimed moral authority of LDS windbags. I see the good fruits of spending more time with my family, and I find that transversing those avenues where I engage with humanity without reference to the church has broadened my world.

    Choices made through more engaged reasoning about how I spend my time and resources has resulted in making moments in the here and now richer and more meaningful. From basking in the simple things – I can’t express the carnal pleasure of that pre-dinner beer on a hot afternoon. To the bigger things e.g. creating a rare opportunity by dropping a significant bundle of $ to take a trip to Europe with my wife and subsequently enjoying the shit out of it.

    Rambling…Perhpas the speculative parallel is that empathy consciously expended avoids exhaustion and consequently makes those moments more meaningful. This includes regarding the emotional appeal and supposed authority of those soliciting your empathic resources with a rational eye.

    Side question: Can agency truly be exercised if one still believes in a god who notes every action we take and every thought we have?

  • Gabriel von Himmel

    Thank you for your deep dive into navel gazing. I have sympathy, empathy and compassion for the thrones on which you sit. Now that you have escaped from the Bell Jar, there is only the decision on where to place the decimal points.

    Infants, you have a wealth of “topical” material archived worth revisiting in a mixed and matched series of podcasts that speak to the breadth of the human experience.

    Please don’t stop producing, but, be selective in your topics. Fallen Saints are among the best of the human experience; after all Ex-mormons are just Twisted Latter-Day Jews lead out of the wilderness.

    Thanks Heather for your insight and courage to play in a sandbox with a bunch of guys that can be snarky, cynical and painfully earnest –– I have compassion for you all. And that of course requires both empathy and sympathy.
    goodonya, sayonara,