The Art of Empathy: Welcoming Those Who Have Been Exiled

What does an empathetic person look like? Is an empathetic person generally a woman? Can an empathetic person be on the autism spectrum?

Social science researcher and educator Karla McLaren thinks society has drawn too hard a line between those who empathize and those who supposedly do not. It’s an important issue, as the ways in which we raise our children are sometimes affected by our preconceived notions about their inherent abilities. And the development of empathetic skills can change the face of our relationships—at work and in our personal lives.

In The Art of Empathy (Sounds True, 2013), McLaren provides insights into what empathy is, who has it, and how best to make use of this powerful ability. The following excerpt is from the book’s second chapter, “Defining and Redefining Empathy.”

Bioneers is excited to welcome Karla McLaren to the 2017 Bioneers Conference, where she will speak on a panel with Arlie Russell Hochschild about the emotional underpinnings of the divides we’re experiencing in our nation – and how exploring them might help us to heal.

An unfortunate offshoot of all of this intense interest in empathy is that there’s been a facile and frankly unempathic quest to exclude entire categories of humans from the empathic community. As an empath, I challenge these exclusions wholeheartedly, and I absolutely won’t perpetuate them. Certainly, in popular culture, there’s a deeply sexist notion that empathy is a female skill and that males are constitutionally less empathic or less emotive than females are. This terrible idea has created untold suffering for boys and men, who are often not taught much about emotions and are not treated as fully emotive and sensitive beings. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve given talks and had men come up to me afterward and whisper, as if they don’t even have the right to say it, “I think I’m an empath.” What? Of course men are empaths!

Certainly, many males have been excluded from an understanding of emotions and empathy, and sexist ideas about men are absolutely commonplace, but they’re not true. So let’s look at our definition of empathy again, specifically in terms of men and boys:

Empathy is a social and emotional skill that helps us feel and understand the emotions, circumstances, intentions, thoughts, and needs of others, such that we can offer sensitive, perceptive, and appropriate communication and support.

This definition does not exclude men or boys, and it doesn’t suggest that feeling or understanding emotions is a female skill. Males can easily understand the feelings, circumstances, thoughts, and needs of others. Males can also offer sensitive, perceptive, and appropriate communication and support. Empathy is not a gendered skill — it’s a human skill! The alleged problem of male empathy doesn’t come from inside the male body; there is no male-specific defect of empathy or emotional awareness; and there are no male-specific differences in early emotional development. Little boys love cuddling and love and emotions and empathy. So do men.

But tragically, we don’t tend to raise boys (or men) as if they’re fully empathic and fully emotive beings. As a direct result, males in our heavily gendered society may experience emotions more intensely than females do. However, because they’ve been socialized to view themselves as unemotional, many males may believe that their normal human emotions are strange or out of place. In general, males are not socially permitted to express a full range of emotions or to chat with friends about those emotions (as females are socially allowed to do), which leaves males with very few healthy or fully conscious outlets for their emotions. In our social training and our social myth making, we’ve created an appallingly unempathic environment for most males.

I wrote a piece on my website about this in connection to the wonderful book Pink Brain, Blue Brain, by neurologist Lise Eliot. She busts sexist myths about boys and girls, and in her book, she points out that the differences between the brains of males and females are actually quite small at birth and throughout childhood. Eliot focuses on socialization — on how we approach gender roles and how we treat boys and girls so wildly differently — as the chief contributing factor in the later differences between males and females in terms of their emotional, social, and verbal skills. Eliot also notes that although there are some early, sex-based differences in verbal abilities (girls are sometimes more verbal than boys, but not always), as well as some differences in activity levels (boys are sometimes more active than girls, but not always), there is not as much difference as we’ve been led to believe. In fact, there is more difference between girls in these traits and between boys in these traits than there is between the sexes. However, parents tend to support these gender-linked behaviors very early. For example, they may respond positively to baby girls’ vocalizations while subtly ignoring their activity levels (and vice versa for boys).

In numerous disguised-gender studies, people describe identical behavior differently depending on whether they think a baby is a boy or a girl. A pink-attired sleeping baby will be called delicate and darling, while the same sleeping baby attired in blue will be called strong and dynamic. What? It’s the same baby! But in a heavily gendered world such as ours, it’s not the same baby at all. We actually attribute different (and sometimes opposite) emotional and empathic qualities to identical behaviors in boys and girls. We enforce gender so strongly and so incessantly that we don’t even notice we’re doing it; it’s the air we breathe and the ground we walk on.

Most of our valenced ideas about gender roles for males and females are socially created; they’re not biologically or objectively true, and they can’t be found in the brains of infants. But because so few people understand the difference between objective reality and socially constructed reality, these myths and falsehoods gain the status of concrete truth. Accordingly, many little girls are encouraged to become relatively inactive people who love to talk about defining and redefining empathy emotions and social relationships (but hate math), while little boys are urged to stop crying at a certain age, even when they’ve been hurt deeply. Boys are given guns and trucks and told to man up, stop crying, there’s nothing to be afraid of, stop being girly, stop talking about feelings, and basically stop being fully alive. When we enforce gender stereotypes, we actually reduce the intelligence, the emotional capacity, the empathic skills, and the very humanity of little boys and little girls. We also throw most of the emotional awareness tasks in heterosexual relationships onto women, which might seem helpful but which actually further reduces males’ emotional skills.

Enforced gender stereotypes can certainly interfere with the emotional and social development of human beings. And yet we all have the capacity for emotional and empathic awareness. All of us — males, females, and everyone in between — can intentionally learn how to identify and work with emotions and empathy at any age and from any position on the gender continuum. Empathy is a human skill; it’s not gender specific.

As we grow up, our brains do change, and adult women often have different emotional skills and neurological profiles from adult men. But the brain is a highly plastic organ, and it will change in response to any strong training. For instance, the brains of highly trained musicians or people who speak many languages look and behave differently from the brains of nonmusical people or speakers of only one language. But this doesn’t mean that music and language are forbidden to you if you weren’t trained early; your brain is plastic, and you can learn new things at any age. There may be some discernible differences in the brains of adult males and adult females, but the old myth about men being less emotional or less able to feel emotions has no basis in neurology. Even the idea that men have smaller corpora callosa than women (the corpus callosum carries information between the left and right hemispheres of the brain) was based on a study of just fourteen brains and has since been disconfirmed, as Eliot points out. But people hold onto this sexist idea, repeat it constantly, and write books and make whole careers around it, while males suffer silently (or act out) the emotions they clearly feel but aren’t invited (or allowed) to understand.

Even so, males have always found ways to feel deeply, to become highly skilled in the social world, to create great art, to parent lovingly, to care for animals, to heal the sick, to fight for social justice, to love fully, to dance and sing and act, to communicate meaningfully, and to be profoundly emotive beings. So let me state this right out loud: males have all the human emotions, males can feel and understand all emotions, males have empathy, males can display empathy, and males are natural empaths. I enthusiastically welcome men and boys into the empathic community.

Another group of people who are tragically and unfairly excluded from the empathic community are people on the autism spectrum, whom I and others have identified as hyperempathic rather than unempathic. In some areas of empathy research, the multiple hypersensitivities that many autistic people experience are not clearly understood, which has led to the mistaken assumption that because many autistic people have difficulty deciphering social cues, they must therefore lack the capacity for empathy. (When I describe people as autistic, I’m using “identity first” language very intentionally; please see the endnote.) This deeply unempathic assumption creates continual misery for autistic people, such that many otherwise caring people will blithely refer to autistics as being cold and incapable of meaningful relationships or even love. This is not only thoroughly and demonstrably wrong, but it’s also insensitive, discriminatory, and ableist. It also has terrible effects on the way autistic people are viewed, taught, portrayed, and treated in the larger community. Some researchers in the area of autism are becoming more awake to the humanity and dignity of autistic people, but there’s still a very, very long way to go.

In our work as empaths, however, we’ll enthusiastically welcome autistic people as fellow empaths — and often hyperempaths — who have unique sensitivities and immeasurable capacities for deep relationships, social interactions, and love. Let’s state this right out loud: autistic people have all the human emotions — autistics can feel and understand all emotions, autistics have empathy, autistics can display empathy, and autistic people are natural empaths.

The deeply mistaken exclusion of boys, men, and autistic people from the world of fully realized empathy tells us that the study of empathy is a very active and tumultuous (and, in some cases, very backward) undertaking. Clearly, the story of empathy is still being written.

There is yet another category of humans who are excluded from the realm of empathy; these people are variously called psychopaths, sociopaths (though this term is considered dated), narcissists, borderlines, or antisocial personalities. There is a great deal of interplay among these definitions, and diagnostic defining and redefining empathy criteria shift (as do the diagnostic titles). However, each condition includes assumptions of a pathological lack of empathy. As a survivor of predatory abuse (I’ll explain what I mean by that, gently, at the end of this chapter), I’ve had a lifelong interest in the dark side of human nature: of criminals and victims, abusers and manipulators, and our many shifting conceptualizations of human evil. Right now, one approach is to attribute all human evil to a lack of empathy, but I find that explanation to be too pat and too simplistic. I’m also very concerned sociopolitically about the fact that early research on psychopathy was conducted on imprisoned people, who are a socially created category rather than a truly different type of person. Although there are certainly people who victimize others intentionally, attributing this abusive and predatory tendency merely to a lack of empathy displays an incomplete understanding of empathy, emotions, the nature of conflict, a sociologically grounded approach to crime and social control methods, and the many ways in which empathy development in early childhood can go awry.

As we move into a deeper study of empathy, beginning with a short history of the concept, we’ll revisit abusers and predatory people not as ominously inhuman specimens with terrifying empathy deficits, but rather in a more empathic way altogether.

This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from The Art of Empathy by Karla McLaren, published by Sounds True, 2013.

Listen to McLaren speak on empathy at the 2015 Bioneers Conference on Soundcloud.

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