The “first commandment” of sound character formation is to recognize that we are neither the center of the universe nor a universe unto ourselves and to therefore be mindful of the impact we necessarily have on all aspects of creation. And, as I mentioned in last week’s post such mindfulness only develops out of empathy (see: Character’s First Command: Mindfulness through Empathy).
Some individuals have a particularly hard time mastering this pivotal first commandment of healthy character formation. And most often, the reason for that involves their impaired capacity for empathy. So these critical questions inevitably arise: “Why are some people simply unable or unwilling to have proper regard for others?,” and “Why do some folks only think of themselves and can’t or won’t care enough about the impact they have on everyone and everything else?”
Research has been telling us for some time that the brains of empathy-deficient people work in some very abnormally strange and unique ways (for more on this topic see the article: Is Psychopathy Genetic?). And while it’s tempting to think that this hard evidence that some folks are constitutionally “wired” in a way that makes them simply incapable of feeling for others, we know that the brain is an amazingly plastic organ that develops and modifies its inter-neuronal connections and even its structures based upon environmental shaping influences and demands (for example, people who are born without cerebellums often develop structures and neuronal pathways in other areas of their brain in order to have the capacity to coordinate their movements). So the extent to which “nature” or “nurture” plays the greater role in someone’s impaired empathy development remains uncertain and can vary considerably. Suffice it to say that over the years I’ve come across hundreds of individuals whom I thought were fairly “hardwired” for empathy problems (this appears more common in true psychopaths). Many came from appropriately supportive, stable, principle-driven homes where critical social values were not only promoted and nurtured but also well-modeled by caregivers. Still, they had big trouble learning to care (there’s also evidence that trying to teach empathy to naturally feeling-devoid adults – i.e. teaching them to be more aware of the feelings, wants, and needs of others – only aids them in becoming more skillful predators). I’ve also come across some truly remarkable individuals who either received no healthy guidance or experienced extreme neglect or abuse and still managed to emerge as sensitive, caring, responsible human beings. So there’s littlle doubt in my mind about nature’s role in things, whether someone has a diminished or a strong capacity for empathy. But by far, most of the folks I’ve treated for empathy problems either grew up in environments where empathy was simply not nurtured well enough or modeled well enough. Many others experienced so much trauma or “punishment” of one kind or another for their sensitivity that they simply learned to mentally bury it. And make no mistake, when it comes to this pivotal issue of mindfulness about one’s impact on the rest of the world, the key is empathy. As I say over and over again to professionals attending my workshops, it’s not so much that the character-impaired among us aren’t aware of their impact. Some are acutely aware. Rather, it’s that they don’t care enough about the effect of their beliefs, attitudes, and especially, their behavior.
Perhaps the most insidious aspect of poor empathy development is the capacity some folks have to mentally wall-off or “compartmentalize” their feelings (I talk about this phenomenon in my books In Sheep’s Clothing, Character Disturbance, and How Did We End Up Here?). Folks, for example, who are generally decent, caring mothers, fathers, husbands, wives, etc. but who in their racist beliefs and attitudes can somehow look upon members of certain groups with a chilling callousness, indifference, or hatred. Sexual predators who might even be willing to sacrifice their own life for their own child but who somehow can turn off all care, concern, and reason when it comes to satisfying their deviant pedophilic urges. This compartmentalization capacity is at its extreme in the examples I’ve given, but I’ve actually seen it in many different shades and degrees and in far too many people for comfort. Ours is an age in which all too many of us learn far too well and early on how to “desensitize” ourselves to the things that might otherwise rightfully unnerve us, and it can get to be a really ugly, destructive habit to engage in such emotional distancing. And to what extent the tendency to favor this mental mechanism we call compartmentalization is inborn is unknown. But it’s a phenomenon that’s concerned me more that perhaps any other in my work over the years with disturbed characters of all levels of severity. And in my work with such folks I’ve always made extra efforts to both confront and invite correction of this most insidious threat to developing the kind of empathy that allows a person to be appropriately mindful of their impact on others and the world at large.
Next week I’ll be again previewing my upcoming second book with co-author Kathy Armistead tentatively titled The Ten Commandments of Character: How to Build a Significant Life as we discuss the “second commandment” of sound character formation.
Sunday evening’s Character Matters program will again be live, so I can take your phone calls. Follow the link above to get more information on the program and how to call in (I also mention the call-in phone number multiple times at the beginning of the program and episodically throughout).