Dyspathy: a dynamic complement to empathy

                               Understanding of the world of the Other emerges from the interaction of empathy with dyspathy.

Ideas of complementarity in human life and thinking occur in various sources familiar to me, beginning from mathematical set theory and including the figure/ground of Gestalt Theory, the shadow in Jungian psychology, relational pairs forming themata in Social Representations Theory, the yin/yang of Buddhism, and the negative space in art. The reader, no doubt, can think of other connections.

In set theory, a set comprises a certain number of elements that share some feature. For example, the set of garden birds includes not all wild birds, but only those that frequent domestic gardens. The complement of a set comprises all those elements that are not in the set but are in what we might call the ‘universe of interest’. In the example, the universe of interest is wild birds, and the complement of the set of garden birds would thus be all wild birds that do not frequent domestic gardens. By putting together a set and its complement, we get the entirety of the universe that interests us. Here, the universe of interest is a person’s understanding of the world of the Other, particularly through dialogue and interaction. Dyspathy is not the ‘opposite’ of empathy but rather its ‘complement’, since together they constitute that understanding.

Gestalt psychology is interested in what people attend to and what they thereby neglect, and how that can be changed. While figure is the locus of attention and ground remains relatively unnoticed, together they make up the whole or Gestalt. The well known black and white pictures, in which either an old woman or a young woman (or a duck or woman) can be seen, but not both at the same time, illustrate the interacting dynamics of figure and ground: how we perceive the figure against the ground, how the ground participates in formulating the figure but at the same time sinks out of range of our attention, and the effort required to reverse or adjust figure and ground.

Cultures and languages differentiate in a figure/ground way. Since I learnt of it, I have been fascinated by the Samoan word va, which means “a space between” (Pratt, 1895). The morpheme contributes to vasa meaning the ocean, from va – space; sa – forbidden/sacred (Wendt, 1999), and to va’a, meaning a canoe or boat. Here, the figure/ground differentiation of land/sea made by European languages/cultures is being reversed. It makes sound nautical and geographic sense for people living on small atolls in a huge ocean to attend to the sea between, since it dictates much of their lives; food comes from it and they travel across it for trade. In a land-based scenario of desert which might be a parallel, those who live there would think it odd to attend just to oases rather than to the desert between oases. Va is also used, metaphorically, to refer to “relationships between people and things, unspoken expectations and obligations” (Wendt, 1999). The example of va reminds us that what is figure and what is ground is embodied and partly socio-culturally constructed, and that reversal is not always easy across cultures. Likewise, a dyspathy/empathy division is likely to be socio-culturally entrenched, can come to feel quite natural, and requires work to reverse.

I learnt the benefits of doing the work of figure/ground reversal experientially when becoming an artist. In learning to draw, I was encouraged to notice the negative space around and inside an object. If drawing a table, for example, then the negative space would include the space seen in two dimensions as underneath and around the table. In drawing, it is often helpful to attend to and draw the negative space rather than the object because the figure/ground reversal defamiliarises and allows the brain to attend to shapes in space rather than to named objects with cultural meanings.

Dyspathy, as the dynamic complement to empathy in our efforts to understand the Other in their world, includes both automatic and controlled responses. The idea of figure/ground reversal, and its potential for imaginative productivity, suggests that attention to dyspathy may be rewarding in our quest to understand and support empathy. Furthermore, the idea of reducing dyspathy to increase empathy resonates with Gestalt therapy; rather than doing more emotional ‘work’ by attending to what appears significant as emotional ground, a client can be encouraged to remove obstacles that prevent attention and let figure/ground reversal or adjustment happen . Shifting dyspathy might be a more effective strategy to increase empathy than direct work on empathy itself.

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  1. […] When I read Brené Brown on what shame does to us, I find her describing a dark nurturing of dyspathy: […]



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