Empathy: When is it a force of good and when not?

 

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Yesterday, a friend and I talked about the violence against peaceful protestors in Sudan. She said she can’t believe what is happening to innocent people. What is worse, she said, is no one cares about them. No one is helping.

I said I share your sentiments. But the problem is not that no one cares; it is just that such conflicts are quite complex. Yemen, Syria, Libya and other cases are before our eyes. Intervention or no intervention. People have been dying.

She said but why can’t we do something. Why can’t we be with them, so they don’t feel alone and scared? Why can’t we share their fear and pain, she said.

Again, I said I share your kind thoughts. But one also has to feel mentally and emotionally safe themselves to be able to help others.

It is sad that they are trapped but we can’t do much if we get trapped with them. One can’t help their crying child by starting crying with them. One has to feel ok and take action.

I said I love how empathetic you are but you need to separate emotional empathy from cognitive empathy

The Yale psychologist, Paul Bloom says emotional empathy means feeling the pain and suffering of people. Emotional empathy does not always help and it is not healthy. In work of peace or in life in general, one needs to make sure first they are ok.

Cognitive empathy, he says, refers to understanding other people’s problems and empathizing with them. Cognitive empathy is mentally appreciating the pain of other people and not necessarily feeling their pain emotionally.

Bloom says, another limitation of empathy is that we don’t empathize with strangers as much as we do with people we know. Therefore, individual actions and governments’ policies should base on rational calculation rather than purely on empathy.

As an activist, I follow the news of conflict in my country, Pakistan, and across the world closely. The events in the past year in Pakistan and in countries such as Syria, Yemen and Sudan affected me emotionally.

At one point, I could not watch the videos of Pakistani security forces’ oppression of the protestors of the rights-based Pashtun Tahafuz (Protection) Movement or the PTM.

This was one reason why I took a break for four months from social media. I have read and have realized that it is ok to share the pain of fellow human beings. But it is not necessary to feel the way other people feel.

I agree with Bloom that emotional empathy is not good for one’s health. Hope this helps the readers and activists in the field.

 

 

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