January 20, 2008

Empathy is what makes it possible for us to read each other

Behavior: Understanding Empathy: Can You Feel My Pain? By RICHARD A. FRIEDMAN, M.D. NYT: April 24, 2007
What is critical to understanding someone is not necessarily having had his or her experience; it is being able to imagine what it would be like to have it. Thus, I do not have to be black to empathize with the toxic effects of racial prejudice, or be a woman to know how I would feel about being denied promotion on the basis of sex.
Contrary to what many people believe, being empathic is not the same thing as being nice. In fact, empathy can sometimes be put to a very dark purpose.
When the Nazis were bombing Rotterdam in World War II, for example, they put sirens on the Stuka dive-bombers knowing full well that the sound would terrify and disorganize the Dutch. The Nazis imagined perfectly how the Dutch would feel and react. Fiendish, but the very essence of empathy.
In the right hands, empathy has tremendous positive therapeutic force and can narrow what looks like an unbridgeable gap between patients and therapists...In the end, empathy is what makes it possible for us to read each other. And it is the reason your doctor can understand your problem without actually having to live it. Richard A. Friedman is director of the psychopharmacology clinic at the Weill Medical College of Cornell University. More Articles in Health » 8:42 AM

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