Empathy refers to understanding the Other. The Living with Uncertainty project is developing a multilevel, dynamic and dialogic model of empathy that encompasses the various processes, capacities and phenomena connected with ‘empathy’. The model describes how one person (the Self) can understand another (the Other) through dialogue and interaction: not just the Other’s thoughts and feelings, but also why the Other thinks and feels as s/he does – how it is to be that other person, in their world. Here I enlarge the idea of empathy to incorporate its contrast or complement, which I call dyspathy.

Empathy includes both automatic and controlled mental processes (Cameron, 2010). Automatic empathy is an immediate response to perceiving another person; controlled empathy includes more conscious processes that can involve intention and deliberation. The capacity of our brains to share experiences and emotions with other people through automatic empathic responses, as revealed through recent functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) studies, raises an interesting issue of management. If we were to be continually tuning into other people’s emotions, we would be perpetually anxious or exhilarated, and very quickly exhausted. We must therefore have very efficient inhibitory mechanisms that screen out most of the emotional empathy being carried out by our brains, without us even noticing. So efficient is empathy inhibition, that what is left – the empathy that we actually do experience – is not felt as remnants of a much larger process but as a phenomenon complete in itself. If empathy is what remains of our response to perceiving the Other after inhibition, dyspathy is to do with what is inhibited, screened, take away.

When the Self responds to the Other, dyspathy is everything that empathy is not. Dyspathy co-adapts with empathy in dialogue and interaction to produce understandings of, attitudes towards, and feelings about the Other.

Dyspathy in dialogue and interaction is well described through metaphors:

  • dyspathy blocks connections between Self and Other;
  • dyspathy constructs a barrier between Self and Other;
  • dyspathy resists connections between Self and Other;
  • dyspathy distances the Other so that connections cannot be made;
  • dyspathy excludes the Other from the space of the Self;
  • dyspathy hides or shields the Self from the Other.

More to follow


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