How does empathy, compassion and altruism interconnect in the human experience toward the end of increasing well-being for all? This link I am including here follows to the best research description I have found about what empathy is and how it is supposed to operate in humans beginning very early in life. Adult attachment experts say that among those of us who suffered from unsafe and insecure caregiver attachments during our first year of life (true for about half of our population) we all have a resulting ‘empathy disorder’ along with some variation of an attachment disorder.
In this article the authors described research among preschoolers that shows how this combination of insecure attachment from early relationship traumas impacts a very young child’s experience with empathy among others. I read this and added my comments four years ago:
Empathy is a power humans have to experience within their body-brain patterns of information processing that allow us to know even without words what another person is feeling. Early experiences of relationships with caregivers who do not have healthy empathy abilities due to their own Trauma Altered Development lack the capacity to share-mirror-resonate with their young offspring. This domino effect will be seen in the young children who will then lack healthy empathy abilities in their own-body brain.
Healthy empathy does not allow for contamination of someone else’s feeling state with our own. There is supposed to be a health-promoting boundary between people so that we know the difference VERY CLEARLY between another’s suffering and our own.
I now recognize that the feelings I have in connection to the people of all ages that are suffering through the effects of the terrible fires in Bastrop County, Texas is NOT coming from a healthy ability to empathize with those people. The fires, which have been burning for days now, are only about 30% contained. Over 550 homes have been burned to cinders, and many pets and livestock animals have been killed. Although there are millions of people suffering on this planet (and the planet is suffering as well), my sister and her family live in that county. Although their home has been spared so far, my heartfelt attention is turned to their neighbors who are suffering.
But what I feel is NOT TRUE EMPATHY. Because of the severe infant-child abuse I suffered while my body-brain was growing and developing I will NEVER be able to experience healthy, true empathy.
It is important for me to realize this, and to realize that experiences of empathy are connected to but different from both the experience of compassion (which is deeply tied into the vagus nerve system and the calm-connection end of the stress response system) and the experience of altruism.
Yes, the development of my vagus nerve, autonomic nervous system and my central nervous system were also altered in their development in response to severe child abuse trauma. But empathy itself begins to form itself directly into the earliest forming right-limbic-social-emotional brain of an infant through its interactions with its earliest caregivers from birth. These patterns are deeply connected to the ability to grow and recognize one’s own self in relationship to other members of its social species – through the presence or absence of true empathy in an infant’s significant others.
There is no magic wand here. What happens to build our earliest body-brain before the age of one determines the later patterning of our experiences for the rest of our lives. Those of us who suffered severe maltreatment and trauma during our earliest years need to be able to recognize that when we become UPSET at injustice and pain of any kind that others are experiencing – what we know of their suffering is contaminated with our own suffering.
That is just a fact.
We can still recognize our compassionate response. We can still obviously act in altruistic ways. But we need to be able to focus on sorting out our emotional reactions to other people’s suffering in ways that safe and securely attached people who will always be experiencing healthy, true empathy will never have to. Our clarity on the emotional boundaries between our self and others will not be innately clear to us. We have to WORK for this clarity! Please read the information at the link I posted above to see how this is true even from the age of preschool.
If early trauma survivors do not do this extra work to honestly find out “Who and what am I feeling my pain for and about?” we are playing in the wrong sandbox. Being honestly concerned for other people’s (and animals’) well-being happens when we can leave our own suffering for our own self out of the picture.
If we don’t do this work we will not be able to tell the difference between our feelings FOR OUR OWN SELF and our feelings for life outside of our own body-self. For severe abuse survivors this will be a lifelong effort.
These are also some related posts on this blog: