Empathy Deficit Disorder: Retrain Your Brain?

There are those of us with enough empathy and those of us without enough empathy, the latter of which psychologist Douglas LaBier would say suffer from Empathy Deficit Disorder—a diagnosis he made up.

But first, what is empathy? According to Psychology Today, “Empathy is the experience of understanding another person’s condition from their perspective. You place yourself in their shoes and feel what they are feeling. Empathy is known to increase prosocial (helping) behaviors.”

According to Greater Good, “Contemporary researchers often differentiate between two types of empathy: ‘Affective empathy’ refers to the sensations and feelings we get in response to others’ emotions; this can include mirroring what that person is feeling, or just feeling stressed when we detect another’s fear or anxiety. ‘Cognitive empathy,’ sometimes called ‘perspective taking,’ refers to our ability to identify and understand other people’s emotions. Studies suggest that people with autism spectrum disorders have a hard time empathizing.”

Now, what can you do if you have empathy deficit disorder? LaBier explains how neuroplasticity is involved. “You can ‘grow’ specific emotions and create new brain patterns that reinforce them. As you redirect and refocus your thoughts, feelings, and behavior in the direction you desire, the brain regions associated with them are reinforced. What’s more, changing your brain activity reinforces the changes you’re making in your thoughts and emotions. The result is a self-reinforcing loop between your conscious attitudes, your behavior and your brain activity.”

See his Psychology Today post in its entirety for examples of appropriate exercises for increasing empathy for your intimate partner, for someone you dislike, for strangers you encounter, and for people from other cultures.

In his post titled “How to Test Your Empathy” another expert, psychologist Guy Winch, explains that trying to imagine oneself in another’s shoes “involves directing our awareness to a place our mind does not go of its own accord–to what it feels like to be another person–lingering there for a moment so we register the emotional and cognitive landscape, and then returning to our own reality.”

Want to show empathy to someone you care about but aren’t sure you can pull it off? Emily McDowell‘s popular line of “Empathy Cards” may be of some help. Some examples of her cards’ captions:

When life gives you lemons I won’t tell you a story about my cousin’s friend who died of lemons.

I promise never to refer to your illness as a “journey.”

Unless someone takes you on a cruise.

The Five Stages of Grief:

Crying in public

Crying in the car

Crying alone while watching TV

Crying at work

Crying when you’re a little drunk

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