What Is Sympathy: Part I, Definitions
Don, I am glad you are interested in my ideas about sympathy. Unfortunately I don’t feel entirely adequate to the task of fully clarifying this ramified and confusing topic when I compare my knowledge to the awesome scholarship of Lauren Wispe, the man whose lifelong dedication to scholarship on this topic is unsurpassed. I know Lauren, for he was once a mentor and advisor to me, and his dedication to the study of sympathy has been a decades-long source of inspiration for me. To properly study sympathy, he has had to become an expert on empathy, as well. In fact Lauren Wispe wrote the entry under the topical heading “Sympathy and Empathy” for the International Encyclopedia of Social Sciences. My scholar’s conscience makes me very cautious as I imagine Lauren correcting me here and there. So I should repeat at the outset what I wrote earlier in a posting to this forum on sympathy--that is, that Lauren Wispe would not, I believe, endorse my assertion, as you, Don, do not (yet?), that sympathy is the bedrock of a true therapeutic motive. But frankly, I have not understood why Lauren will not take that step, for it seems an obvious conclusion to me once one understands (or misunderstands?) as I do what Lauren has written about sympathy.
So on to the heart of the matter--defending my unusual proposition. I need to begin with a definition. To know how I define a “true therapeutic motive” I first need to define “sympathy.” Based on his thoroughgoing study of philosophical and psychological writers on the topic of sympathy, Wispe defines sympathy as having two parts: (a) heightened awareness of the feelings of the other person and (b) an urge to take whatever actions are necessary to alleviate the other’s plight. Part (a) is the cognitive-affective component and part (b) is the conative or behavioral component of sympathy. More briefly, sympathy is the increased sensibility of another’s suffering as something to stimulate action to alleviate the other’s suffering.
It is not part of this definition of sympathy, then, to refer to “sympathy with positive affective experiences”; for that process we could talk about celebration or shared joy or mirroring, for example A number of other considerations are implicit in this definition of sympathy Thus, sympathy can be expressed only for creatures that are (1) assumed to feel pain or suffering, (2) conscious of these feelings, and (3) unable to choose to not suffer or feel pain. (Incidentally, I believe these three requirements for sympathy help to explain why it is sometimes difficult to feel sympathy for abusive persons. Blinded by their shame and their responding in the “attack other” mode, abusive persons often behave and speak as if they were not suffering--but, of course, they are. And they falsely believe--and persuade naive others to falsely believe--that they are free to choose to feel and behave however they wish while they are actually stuck in a state of compulsive abusiveness. It is , in other words, hard to sympathize with any living creature that appears to not be suffering or to not be conscious of any suffering or that appears able to freely choose not to suffer.)
What Is Sympathy: Part II, Sympathy Entails Altruism
What is most difficult to grasp (at least in our culture, dominated as it is by the philosophies of egoistic self-interest as the rock-bottom foundation of human motivation) is that sympathy logically entails altruism. That is, a person (or mammal, really) with an urge to act sympathetically on behalf of alleviating another’s suffering cannot be acting out of egoistic self-interest alone. If one acts to alleviate another’s discomfort just to abate one’s own empathic, vicarious suffering, the easiest thing to do, for example, is avert one’s gaze. Mothers who place themselves over their infant as a tornado comes overhead and the loyal pet dog who jumps immediately into a burning building to save his master from fire are both demonstrating the mammalian power of altruistic sympathetic help to alleviate another’s distress FOR THE SAKE OF THE OTHER, regardless of how much the mother or the dog gain in alleviating their own distress.
It has been argued by those who cannot imagine any motive other than self-interest that such altruism described in the above paragraph is not what it appears. Thus it is said that were these rescue efforts not made, there would result a residue of personal guilt as distressing as seeing the other suffer. But on what basis would such guilt arise? Only, so far as I can see, on the basis that there must exist a powerful wish to come to the aid of the child or master FOR THEIR SAKE.. In short, guilt is based on a demand that has no basis under the assumption of an exclusively nonaltruistic, hedonistic, egoistic,. self-interested desire to alleviate ONLY one’s own distress in suffering empathic anguish as a witness to another’s distress.
What Is Sympathy? Part III, Both Empathy and Sympathy Can Be Misused
Can sympathy be misused. Yes, certainly. Can it be used with a lack of skill and a shaming clumsiness to make others feel inferior for needing help. Yes, indeed. And this, as you noted, Don, is an important consideration. It is also true that empathy can be badly used, as Basch points out in the above quote. And therapists with great powers of accurate empathy who then use their knowledge to insult and abuse clients or trainees exemplify just one way empathy can be seriously and dangerously misused. Sympathy can be misapplied with an insufficiently comprehensive approach for all of the needs of a suffering client, including their need not only for help but for dignity and self-respect on an equal footing with a helpful therapist. (I believe it was Saint Vincent dePaul who is supposed to have advised us to be careful with the possibility of a superiority attitude in sympathy when he said we should act so that “the poor will forgive us the bread we give them.” ) Promiscuous or otherwise injudicious sympathy can be shaming and most oppressive indeed. So sympathy and empathy must both be used with skill, knowledge, tact, experience, intelligence, and so on. (“Affect without cognition is blind.”)
What Is Sympathy? Part IV, Sympathy as Part of the True Therapeutic Motive
I think that psychotherapy training is at risk of going astray when the “true therapeutic motive” derived from sympathy is disavowed. When our sympathetic impulses are denied or shamed we can lose our compass to guide us. Perhaps my earlier posting stated the matter too strongly, however. I must concede that it is possible to be helpful, and to that extent therapeutic, if one is motivated only by the excitement of one’s work, for example. And one could probably do very well sometimes with only self-interested motives of, for instance, seeking one’s own excitement in one’s work. Analogously a lifeguard could rescue a drowning swimmer for the thrill of the chase and the excitement of applause for one’s muscles and skill in rescuing. An accomplishment most deserving of pride, too! And the rescued swimmer would care very little about the motives of the rescuer so long as the swimmer’s life is saved. So I must retract the strong version of my assertion that therapy is possible only with sympathy in deference to Don’s very thoughtful critique of my earlier posting. A softer version of my assertion would claim that sympathy is what motivates a therapist’s endeavor WHEN the therapist helps another whose suffering vicariously and empathically stimulates the therapist to apply his or her skill, knowledge, and experience on behalf of the other. Accordingly , if one does therapy on behalf of oneself ONLY, then it may still be helpful. But if the the therapist’s only motive is self-interest while denying legitimacy to his or her sympathetic impulse as a guide to the therapist’s conduct, then there is, I believe, a greater risk of therapy going astray from it true aim--to be helpful. Thus, “the true therapeutic motive” is the one that seeks the purported PRIMARY aim of doing therapy--to provide help for others. This aim must be dominant over other aims of, for example, providing excitement or income for therapists or else therapy could deteriorate into using clients PRIMARILY for therapists’ purposes. If I had to choose between a surgeon who is sympathetic but incompetent and one who is competent but unsympathetic, I would certainly pick the one who is competent. But I would prefer to find one who is both competent and sympathetic. In psychotherapy the matter could be different, however, For the extent of one’s capacity to use skillfully the sympathetic disposition may in fact be a limiting factor in one’s competence. Limitations on this capacity due to shaming and denying the importance of sympathy in therapeutic work can also not only limit a therapist's competence but place one’s practice at risk of become a project carried out to primarily achieve the therapist’s aims in subordination to the client’s aims. I know that therapy is sold as a service for the economic and personal benefit of both clients and therapists, but the purported aim of the enterprise is to PRIMARILY alleviate the client’s suffering. The therapist’s sympathy is a powerful, if not essential, instrument to assist in providing this service to clients. But, in addition, the therapist’s sympathy is the rudder to keep the enterprise going in the right direction--toward nonshaming, alleviation of ANOTHER’S (the client’s) unnecessary suffering in living. This is, I believe, an altruistic rudder based on the mammalian capacity to love and care FOR others.
Guess who wrote the following: “The active sympathy of the psychotherapist...is a part of this value-enhancing love, capable of envisioning the personality of the patient in his potential wholeness, even though this wholeness may at present be adumbrated by a preponderance of destructive processes from which the patient seeks liberation.” Note that “active sympathy” as part of “ value-enhancing love” are words that Sigmund Freud (New Introductory Lectures) thought to use in order to describe the therapist’s basic motives to move therapy forward. .
“I always try to learn from others mistakes because I won’t have time enough to make them all myself.”