We humans are innately self-focused and self-serving (see last week’s post: Character’s First Commandment: It’s Not All About You). We have to learn how to get along and work together in a social world. In our second book written together, The Ten Commandments of Character: How to Build a Significant Life, Dr. Kathryn Armistead and I go into depth about what both clinical experience and science have taught us are the 10 essential “commandments” of sound character development. And the first axiom is recognize you are not the center of the universe and to ardently strive to be mindful of your impact you, your urges and desires, and especially your behavior have on everyone and everything else in creation. But just how do we go about acquiring such psychological, social, and spiritual mindfulness? The key is in developing our capacities for empathy and altruism. Below are some edited excerpts from the upcoming book that address this very issue:
We may recognize self-centered behavior as undesirable and bad but what is the good behavioral alternative? How do people act who don’t see themselves as the center of the universe?
People who have overcome their infantile narcissism and have learned to care beyond themselves are altruistic and empathic. And people who are altruistic act for the greater good. They are the folks who see the big picture. They have the capacity to act in others’ best interest even if it means putting aside some of their own needs and feelings. They love freely, not out of self-interest.
Over the years, we have learned that no one can ever be truly and fully divorced from their own self-interest. Moreover, total acceptance is not necessarily the best way to approach certain individuals. Sometimes, as with disturbed characters, a more direct or even confrontational approach is necessary. And while acting in other’s interests is considered noble, such behavior can have a darker side—that is, we can act on another’s behalf without sufficient regard for ourselves. Some sacrifice is noble and even healthy. But when a person sacrifices themselves unnecessarily, indiscriminately, or excessively it can be a real problem. Some folks can even develop a “martyr complex” whereby they glorify or build up themselves (sometimes unwittingly) by becoming the victim. True sacrifice is characterized by humility and not pride over saving others whil hurting oneself.
Historically in our culture we expected women to play the sacrificial role—the role of the person who sacrifices her own needs in order to care for others. Up through the 1970s, for example, women were expected to put aside their career aspirations, so they could fully experience the joys of motherhood. This is the self-sacrificing mother who sits by her child’s sickbed or the lover, girlfriend, or bad-girl-gone-straight who gives up her life willingly for her man, child, friend, student, patient, etc. Even today that is one reason that we see predominately women in less authoritative helping professions such as teachers (especially primary school teachers), nurses, daycare workers, babysitters, elder caregivers, and even office assistants. To be sure, this is changing, but it still is prevalent. Typically, these people are poorly paid and have responsibility that far exceeds their authority. This is a reflection of an unhealthy altruism.
Here is another way that altruism can be turned on its head—when one cares for a person in such a way that people being helped are robbed of their dignity. That is, they are helped to the degree that they bear no responsibility for their own actions and are totally dependent on the person helping them. There is a difference between being “taken care of” and “caring for” another. People who “help” this way are often called “enablers.” Said another way, they have a need to be needed. We all know people like this. They often have a difficult time saying “No,” and disturbed characters, who naturally tend to shirk responsibility, regard them as prime targets for manipulation.
Empathy is predicated on personal face-to-face relationships. It is a behavior that lets the other person know that I understand as much as I can. When I see that you are sad, for example, I can join you in your feeling; but it remains your feeling. I can share in your situation and in a sense help carry the load of responsibility but the situation remains yours. While I might think how I would feel if that happened to me or I might play with the idea of it happening to me, when I listen with empathy, I keep my own feelings out of the way enough to respect yours. Empathy allows me to resonate with you while retaining my objectivity, and it allows you the freedom and space to own your behavior.
Empathy is not sympathy; although we confuse them all the time. Sympathy is feeling for or on behalf of another person. Sympathy is a way that I can show that I understand how it is to “walk in your shoes.” It’s a way that I take on your situation and make it my own. So the more you and I have in common, the more I can sympathize with you. For example, I can sympathize with people I read about in the newspaper, even though I don’t know them, because sympathy doesn’t require a face-to-face relationship. Being able to sympathize with people doesn’t mean that you have a personal relationship with them; and extreme sympathy can indicate a loss of self-boundaries and consequently a loss of individual responsibility for one’s own life journey.
When we listen with empathy, we put their self-interests aside as an unselfish act for the person speaking. In conversation, empathic people do not hand out judgment or manufacture solutions. Rather, they discipline themselves as they refrain from quick fixes. When a listener gives a speaker acceptance and understanding, the listener shows care by letting the other retain ownership of his or her own thoughts and actions. Said another way: the listener doesn’t take on another person’s strictly personal problems and make them into a project. Empathy demands discipline, diligence, objectivity, and unselfishness. While the issues of suffering and struggle are real, they are not problems to be solved but can be opportunities to grow deeper.
I do not want to imply that when you listen with empathy, you are “only” listening. Empathic altruism is not neutral behavior. Nothing is further from the truth. Listening to someone is not passive but an active investment in another person. Empathic listening in the value-laden context of deeply committed people who are striving to care for each other as they journey together.
You can see why empathy doesn’t work with character-impaired people. Empathy is predicated on trust, honesty, and openness. It assumes that people want what is best for themselves and others. Disturbed people, however, will use your care for them against you to get what they want, and/or they may be unable to anything but lie in order to get you to give them their way. And it is clear that disturbed are not empathic, because they cannot set their own needs and desires aside. They have no interest in giving you room or the freedom to decide for yourself, because they want to control all possible outcomes for their own gain.
Learning that we are not the center of the universe and becoming a person who sees beyond their own limited worldview are not givens; they are achievements. And it takes a lot to find just the right balance between self-care and care for others. While it may be “natural” that we are primarily self-interested and that we are born immersed in an environment with expectations and responsibilities, the journey to mature character means that we learn how we impact the world around us and we that accept accountability for our actions. Not believing that we are the center means that we approach and treat others altruistically and with empathy. And, of course, we must balance that with lovingly and responsibily caring for ourselves.
Still hoping some kind souls will post reviews of my current new release with Dr. Armistead, How Did We End Up Here? on Amazon. Such reviews and great word-of-mouth are the main reason for the success of In Sheep’s Clothing, Character Disturbance, and The Judas Syndrome.
My weekly broadcast, Character Matters, will again be live this Sunday evening at 7 pm EDT, so I can take your phone calls.