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Empathy deficit disorder -- do you suffer from it?

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  • People learn basics of empathy in childhood from parents
  • Expert: Lack of empathy, values behind war and divorce
  • A first step to becoming empathetic is faking it to comfort other person
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By Amanda Robb
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Oprah

(OPRAH.com) -- I swear on the "Thelma & Louise" video we watched into a scratchy oblivion: I didn't mean to be the worst friend ever. When Lisa -- my roommate and boon companion of three years --stepped into our apartment, sank to the floor, and clutched our cocker spaniel, I asked, "What's wrong?" with sympathy.

Empathy deficit disorder -- do you suffer from it?

"I got fired," Lisa told me.

"Wow." I pulled her to her feet. "You'll have an amazing story for Jim's party tonight!"

Lisa's eyes went round and wet as the dog's when we left her at the vet. She said, "Come on, Maya" (who gave me a reproachful glance before obeying), disappeared into her bedroom (for three days), and never discussed career matters with me again.

Boy, was I annoyed. At age 26, I was a sublime friend. Lisa, also 26, was blessed to have an ally so honest about dates and hairstyles, so fiercely supportive of her dreams, and willing to defend her choices (the dates, hairstyles, and dreams) to her habitually nettling mom and dad. Never once in our relationship, I was proud to think, had I ever even been tempted to commit a single mortal friendship sin: being competitive, gossiping, or backstabbing.

To me, Lisa's job loss was no big deal. She had complained about the position. Her parents were rich and gave her money. She had nothing to worry about. I thought that reminding her we had something fun to do that night was an appropriate and kind response.

Psychologist Douglas LaBier, Ph.D., director and founder of the Center for Adult Development in Washington, D.C., disagrees. He explained to me that my dearest friend was humiliated by receiving a pink slip, feared she might be incompetent at everything she tried, and, because of me, felt utterly alone. I was, LaBier tells me, "catastrophically unempathetic" to Lisa.

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Today, 15 years later, I know why my attempt at consoling my friend was so ham-fisted. As LaBier explains, virtually everyone learns the basics of empathy in childhood (from our parents comforting us when we're in distress), but my father died when I was 4, and afterward my mother had to be very can-do, juggling three jobs, graduate school, and two kids. When I was upset, she never said, "Oh, I'm sorry. It must be hard to have me away so much after losing your dad."

Instead, on good days, she'd say, "Why are you crying? Nothing is wrong." And on bad days: "You'd better toughen up because life can get a lot worse." Looking back at my 20-something self, I realize that if, as LaBier says, empathy is "the ability or the willingness to experience the world from someone else's point of view," I wasn't brought up to be able to do that.

At least my lack of empathy was not unusual. Having practiced as a psychotherapist for 35 years, LaBier believes that what he calls empathy deficit disorder (EDD) is rampant among Americans.

LaBier says we unlearn whatever empathy skills we've picked up while coming of age in a culture that focuses on acquisition and status more than cooperation and values "moving on" over thoughtful reflection. LaBier is convinced that EDD is at the heart of modernity's most common problems, macro (war) and micro (divorce).

When Lisa crept into her bedroom, I couldn't have articulated any of this. She might have felt abandoned, but all I knew was that I felt alone. My roommate had her dog, and they were both shunning me, and my boyfriend of four years wouldn't rescue me from the loneliness I increasingly felt by agreeing to get married. I went into psychotherapy.

Faking it a step to becoming empathetic

I thought my therapist would help me break up with my commitment-phobic lover, figure out how to choose less sensitive friends, and, of course, let me rant about my mother's shortcomings. I did get to rant -- about my mom, Lisa, and my boyfriend.

What surprised me was my therapist's response to these tirades. She never said, "Leave that rotten bastard." Or "Your roommate is a big baby." Instead she said, "Gosh, that sounds really hard." And, "That must have felt terrible." And, "How did you feel after that happened?" My reaction to those spectacularly bland comments was even more astonishing. I loved them.

"These very simple responses make you feel understood," says New York psychologist Frank M. Lachmann, Ph.D., author of "Transforming Narcissism: Reflections on Empathy, Humor, and Expectations."

He points out that many of the common responses -- "It could be worse"; "You should do X"; "Let's talk about something else" -- appear to be kind and aimed at soothing. But no matter how well intentioned, Lachmann says, these remarks are a rejection, a denial, of what the other person is going through. "They are code for 'Don't confront me with things that are unpleasant,'" he says. "Or 'Don't bother me with your pain.'"

About six months into psychotherapy, I started using what I thought of as my therapist's "lines."

When Lisa was offered a job at an organization she did not want to work at, I said, "Oh, that's a tough spot to be in." When my boyfriend was invited to study abroad, I said, "How do you feel about that?" What I really felt was: "Lisa, that job pays a ton of money, but I guess you can turn it down because your parents are loaded." And, "You selfish bastard, I'll kill you if you go to Europe without me."

Still, Lachmann says, I had taken the first step to becoming empathetic -- which is faking it. If you want to act more empathetic, you follow certain steps: Instead of telling people what they ought to do or becoming tyrannically optimistic, you offer sympathy, inquire about feelings, and validate those feelings. You'll be giving comfort to the other person, even if you yourself can't feel what they're going through.

It's true that for a long time, while I could say the appropriate thing, I could not relate to their struggles. Still, I took satisfaction in the fact that my relationships were improving. Then a year after starting therapy, I began feeling something intensely when comforting friends: terror.

This turned out to be a signal, Lachmann says, that I was actually feeling empathy.

Final insult

I didn't recognize it because I'd always run from emotional discomfort -- and, at least in the beginning, I found trying to be empathetic profoundly uncomfortable. Most of the time, I managed to avoid the impulse to blurt out unhelpful suggestions to my friends -- "Happy hour, anyone?" Or, "Here's the number for a credit consolidator!" -- and instead say the appropriate thing. But for years and years, I could stand genuine empathy only five minutes at a time.

For those five minutes, though, I was not alone. And once I had experienced the wonder of that, I was willing to stumble out of my comfort zone to try to be not alone again.

Virtually everything I have ever tried to improve about myself -- my weight, my sleep habits, my housecleaning -- has resulted in an endless seesaw of improvement. But empathy, I've learned, is not like dieting. (Or, at least, how I diet, which involves ending up back at square one.) Cultivating empathy has its own rewards: The more you do it, the better your relationships are and the more you want to continue.

Feeling understood in that therapist's office taught me that human beings are not doomed to be alone -- and empathy is life's connective tissue. If you have a romantic partner, he or she will someday believe that you are entirely wrong about something, and if you can see the problem from your partner's point of view, you'll be able to get through that conflict without smoldering in the corner or splitting up.

If you work with someone you despise (and who despises you back), and you try to understand why that person dislikes you, then you stand a chance of not hating every minute with her at the office. If you live in a world that you would like to see less divided by ethnic, economic, and religious strife, you'll find that attempting to comprehend the needs of your sworn enemies is a prerequisite to any meaningful action you can take.

Empathy will also require you to get past rationalizations and admit wrongdoing.

For about a decade after I started working to be more empathetic, I told myself that I hadn't hurt Lisa too badly because she never told me I had. But Lachmann points out that the final insult of being treated with a lack of empathy is that the hurt person usually can't complain. "If you say, 'That was such an unempathetic thing to say,' it can easily be heard as, 'Feel sorry for me.' And no one wants to be pathetic." So most people don't say anything, Lachmann says, and relationships "are often ruptured and ruined."

Lisa and I are no longer close. We live on opposite coasts. We have very different lives. But still, I couldn't bear the idea of us being "ruptured and ruined." I recently called her and said I was sorry for being selfish when she lost her job. I said I had eventually learned that it must have been a terrible time for her and that I had made it worse by leaving her so alone with all her confusion. Lisa was gracious ("You did your best"), forgiving ("Really, you were a wonderful friend to me overall"), and honest ("It was 15 years ago, and I'm over it now"). She changed the subject, and we caught up on our summer plans.

Her family -- along with the cocker spaniel, Maya, who was still alive and giving reproachful looks -- was planning a camping trip. Packing up, Lisa realized none of her jeans fit. Her pregnancies had stripped every curve from her body. She was skinny as a post. I began to wail,

"Oh my God, you lucky rat! I gained 10 pounds ... "

But then I stopped myself. "Um. So how does it feel to have to buy new jeans?" I asked.

There was a silence on the line. Then Lisa started laughing. "Wonderful," she said. "Absolutely wonderful."

By Amanda Robb from "O, The Oprah Magazine," April 2008

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