Contagious emotions, anger, and empathy

I’m fascinated by psychology and psychiatry. There’s a very good reason for that: I have several psychiatric/psychological disorders, mostly inherited, but at least one developed: bipolar (genetic), ADD (probably genetic), PTSD (developed), and generalized anxiety (who knows?). These are things that influence my entire life and that I work constantly to… well, I don’t want to say overcome, because genetic disorders stick with you. But “deal with” and work around, certainly.

I’ve known a lot of negative people over the course of my life. I knew one or two early on who influenced me greatly, and we tend to see the things we grew up with as “normal”, so we end up seeking them out, consciously or unconsciously, as we get older as well. For me the problem has been people who lack empathy. Now, people who lack empathy exist on a scale, ranging from well-meaning folks who simply have no ability to put themselves in others’ shoes to people who, because they can’t understand others’ needs, just don’t care about anyone but themselves and have no qualms about hurting others.

Because I’ve been around non-empathetic people so much, this had two major effects on me, as I see it. One is that I had to work hard at relating to other people and learning to put myself in their shoes. The other is that I had anger management problems, because I spent much of my time hurt and angry at the people around me who seemed to care so little for my or anyone else’s feelings.

This comes up today for two reasons. One is that today I came across a fascinating blog article about how Angry/negative people can be bad for your brain. I’ve experienced the “contagion” of negative emotions this writer speaks about; it’s hard not to get caught up in other people’s anger or depression even when you don’t agree with them. Sometimes you need to get a bit of distance and breathing room even if you really want to be there for someone, just so you can continue to be around them at all. Certainly I’ve left various online communities that had turned into war-zones of words, just because I decided that life was too valuable to waste on pointless arguments over things that, in the grand scheme of things, really weren’t that important.

Epinions makes a great example of this, come to think of it. I no longer participate in the community. Overall I like the site, but too many people would get worked up over the stupidest things and engage in wars and diatribes that would persist for months, if not years. I was recently talking to someone from the site and discovered that people who were worked up over what should have been pointless things before I left were still on the warpath about the same things, and it’s been more than a year. It seems like some folks just have to be angry about something in order to feel good (as odd as that may sound), and they’ll attach importance to the strangest things in order to find something to get worked up about. My husband used to say, in reference to someone we knew for a while, “…you know how he likes to get that vein in his forehead throbbing,” when the guy would get worked up about something. It was clear to us that he enjoyed being angry, at least on a certain level.

But anyway. Back to empathy, which has been on my mind lately and is the second reason for this post. These things are partially related; if you have a lot of empathy for others, you’re less likely to get all worked up over things because you can understand that others might not share your viewpoint. Empathy, however, is also its own beast.

Empathy is something I find fascinating. Someone who is totally without empathy can end up displaying sociopathic behavior. If you really are incapable of understanding that others feel pain, or of caring when they do, then you probably have few qualms about causing others pain when you feel you stand to gain something from doing so.

I mentioned that lack of empathy is a sliding scale, however. I don’t think that a lack of empathy necessarily turns someone into an ass. However, I do think it makes someone very difficult to be around. I’ve known people at both ends of the lack-of-empathy scale: well-meaning people who simply make life difficult, and people who truly hurt those around them without caring. I’ve learned to simply boot the latter from my life whenever possible, because they’re toxic. Sure, their behavior might be the result of a bad life or whatever, and maybe there’s reason to feel sympathy for that, but when it comes down to it, because they lack empathy they aren’t going to change. You can’t make them understand that they’re hurting people and get them to stop unless they see value in stopping for themselves–and then they’re only going to stop until they see value in starting again.

Someone who means well, however, can be different. I’ve found you still need to draw strict boundaries with this kind of person. You have to be willing to say, “this is what I’m willing to do for this person, this is what I’m not willing to do, and this is how much time I’m willing to give them.” Otherwise they tend to take and take and take, without ever even realizing that what they’re asking for is exhausting and unreasonable. You can explain it to them if you like, but since they’re virtually incapable of seeing things from your perspective they probably will never get it, and you’re usually better off just saying, “sorry, but I can’t help you with that tonight,” instead of trying to explain why you aren’t up to it or why it’s asking too much of you. Otherwise, I’ve found they simply try to argue you into seeing it from their perspective–because in their mind, theirs is simply the only correct perspective, and they just need to get you to see the truth of things. You also have to understand that, odds are, there are going to be a lot of people who think this person is an ass, because they don’t see the lack of understanding–they just see the surface selfish behavior.

Lest you think I’m bashing on anyone who doesn’t perfectly understand others, however, let me make it clear that I’m talking about folks who have virtually no empathy whatsoever. It isn’t as though everyone simply falls into two camps, one “with empathy” and one “without empathy”. Amount of empathy itself is a separate sliding scale, ranging from so empathetic that you experience the highs and lows of everyone and everything around you, all the way to what I’ve been describing above. I think of it like a capital L, I guess:

High Empathy
Low Empathy

You might wonder why I used the word “dangerous” to describe folks at the far end of the low empathy/not-well-meaning scale. Well, that’s because this is often where you’ll find folks who are willing, when necessary, to hurt others to get what they need. This might be the mugger who has no qualms about knifing someone to get a wallet, or the person who will use anything from emotional manipulation to physical abuse to keep his spouse in line.

On a physical level, the mugger is probably more obviously “dangerous” of course. In his own way, however, the abusive spouse is more dangerous. Why? Because he’s often more subtly manipulative and abusive, convincing people that he’s the sad, injured, unappreciated party, which makes it easy for him to get away with hurting those closest to him. The interesting part is that odds are people will like this person more than they like the well-meaning/low-empathy person, because this person has often learned to manipulate others and to pretend to be a better person than they are.

I’m seriously rambling by this point, of course. I’ve had this rant building for some time, you see, and there’s a lot I can’t really say about it that I’d like to. I know I should just delete this rather than post something this unformed and incomplete, but I know that if I do, this rant will just keep building, so call it a release valve. That other post I linked to is far more coherent, so if you need something normal, I suggest reading that. Someday, perhaps, I’ll post something much more complete on the nature of lack of empathy and kind of people and results it creates.

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8 comments on “Contagious emotions, anger, and empathy
  1. Fredrik says:

    I just realized i’m quite low on the empathy scale and started googling for some answers as to how i could fix that problem and ended up here. Your post hit me hard.. Most of the things you right are thoughts that i’ve either had or that others have shared with me. I identify with your description of well-meaning person who lacks empathy. For instance, i always try to make others see things through my perspective. I don’t like the way i am in this regard though, especially not since my best friend is a total empath and i see how much my lack of empathy hurts her =(
    You might not know an answer to my problem, but i wonder if you do know someway i could fix my empathy problem, because i don’t want to live without empathy. I want to be able to feel other people’s emotions.
    Anyway, i’m glad you posted this instead of deleting it (like you said you were about to). Thank you =)

  2. heather says:

    Partly, I think if you don’t grow up learning how to be empathetic, and you’re trying to learn it later, you need to keep stopping to remind yourself to try to see things from others’ viewpoints. Ask people questions—why they think thus-and-such, why they feel strongly about X, and force yourself not to use that as a basis for arguing with them. Just listen and try to understand.

    The best thing to do, though, would probably be to find a therapist you feel comfortable with and talk to them. It’s tough to learn this stuff once you’re already an adult, but it’s well worth the effort! Good luck. 🙂

  3. Karen says:

    Thanks for the serious ramble. I too am glad that you posted this instead of deleting it. The strangest thing is that to have the capacity to empathise with others does not automatically lead to being a better person, partner, parent etc. Empathy does not necessarily guarantee compassion. However, without empathy it is unlikely that we are able to feel compassion. Ironically, because empathy involves understanding anothers emotional state, it can provide ammunition for the Machiavellian character to behave in the cruellest manner. My mother is almost bereft of empathy but she is always well-meaning. Why? Because she loves me. Her lack of empathy was the source of much conflict between us over many decades. I was constantly hurt by her apparent inability to comprehend my particular situation. Then one day, I asked myself, ‘Am I so special that I should expect this kind, well-meaning person to experience my feelings – to understand my motivations – to recognise my emotions, before we can have a loving relationship.’ No! Even though she cannot put herself in my shoes, she loves me. In he own fumbling, well-meaning way, she loves me. What more could I expect. Good Luck.

  4. KATE says:

    im still a tennager, so my comment most likely wont be as smartly put or sound as intellegent as the others, but i have spent the past couple yeas pretty angry as well due to having friends that do not care about my feelings or other peopoles feelings and spend their time thrrowing out mean or hurtful commernts. it still takes me a moment to try and bush things off my shoulder but if you train yourself to not let things bother you it will most likely make your life much happier!

  5. mike smith says:

    I was with it and thought point were well made, until I got to the later part discussing the abusive spouse. Everyone always, especially women like to use HIM as the abuser, not Him/Her, but falling into the (professional female victim role). It’s so well ingrained into the pyche of society that I doubt she even thought, (empathy) beyond her comment.

    The fact is there are many manipulative women, as well as men. There are many violent abusive women, yet society fails to hold them to the same standard as men (FEMINISM) in it’s truest form. Watch a movie or TV for a few hours and you will see a women strike a man, a slap in the face or a kick in the groin and it’s celebrated as empowering instead of seen as the violent act that it is. Violence against men by women is the same, for the same ugly reasons. Yet society expects men to just suck it up, be a man as if the abuse does have the same effect on men. Women are excused of all responsibity it’s just blown off as, Yelling and scream is normal for women, unstable behavior is all normal it’s just hormonial, right.

  6. heather says:

    mike: Actually, I used “he” instead of “he/she” because “he/she” is still considered an awkward construction, and “he” is still usually considered the default sentence construction in the English language unless you’re talking about someone specific. I’m well aware that anyone can be an abuser. I agree that society is still behind the times in understanding that abuse of men is as serious as abuse of women, but that’s at least as much due to the fact that shame tends to make men stay silent about the issue, because it’s considered not “manly” to be upset by abuse from a woman. I disagree that feminism is the culprit; I think it’s more the “macho” idea that men have to pretend that slap didn’t hurt, or not let on to their peers that a woman harmed them. If it was considered culturally acceptable for men to express their pain when a woman hurt them, then I think we’d see cross-gender abuse viewed much more equally.

  7. Ruth says:

    thank you for the article and the comments. I have just come to realization that I have several people (women and men) in my life with little or no empathy. For many years I tried to overcompensate for their lack of empathy by helping these people. One of my best friend wrote to me one day and said, “These souls can not be changed no matter how hard you try, give, and help.” If you are a person with little or no empathy, get professional help. There is little or no medicine for the lack of empathy. It is a disorder from the brain. There are ways to appear empathetic but it’s really more of a pity for people which is very negative. Those of us with too much empathy are in constant danger of being the victims of people with no empathy. There are millions out there. They are not all bad nor criminals, but we can not help them. the best that we can do is find a way to cope and understand and be cautious without losing our compassion. the best barometers are children, the old, the disabled, and animals. they often are innocent and void of malice and often have unconditional love. they can sense those around them who are not dangerous to them. listen to your gut, watch how innocent beings like children and animals behave around non empathetic people, and love yourself. we can not change the world around us nor make others feel what they don’t but we can do our best to replace hate with love and protect the innocent from harm.

  8. Susan says:

    Empathy should not be confused with understanding other people. I was married to a man that totally understood what he was doing to people and how it made them feel. He enjoyed manipulating people and inflicting pain. It gave him a feeling of power and made him feel good about himself. He did not feel love and compassion, but he was a master of using those natural feelings in others as well as their sympathy, sense of morality, honor, loyalty, guilelessness, honesty, and trust.

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