Updated: Nov 8
If you have followed my work with The Last Symptom, you’ve heard me explain how, when it comes to emotional health, it is not a thing itself which can be categorized as healthy or unhealthy, but rather the reasons creating the motivation for it in the first place.
I’ve given the example on more than one occasion of two different women who spend twelve hours a day at the gym. The first woman does this because she believes her value as a person depends on her looks. She must look like a movie star, because if she does not, she will not feel any sense of worth.
Notice the reality this woman is living with: The belief that she does not have inherent value. How do we know? Because if her perception is that her worth is dependent on external things - such as her looks - then her worth isn’t inherent in nature. She believes that the only way she is likable or lovable is if she looks a certain way, physically.
This is what drives her.
The second woman also spends twelve hours a day at the gym. And yet, her reasons for this is that she values herself. She genuinely cares about herself. Therefore, it is very important to her to take good care of herself. Her physical shape has nothing whatsoever to do with how she perceives her worth. Instead, she knows she lives with the understanding that she has great worth no matter what her physical shape is, and so she cares about herself and about taking care of herself.
This is what motivates the second woman to stay in great physical shape.
The point of this illustration is to highlight how it isn’t a thing, or a behavior, in itself, which can be classified as emotionally healthy or unhealthy. Rather, it is the unconscious, or subconscious causes motivating that behavior.
Empathy works this way when we’re discussing genuine empathy versus artificial empathy.
Genuine empathy is motivated by an altruistic interest in others. ‘Altruistic’ means you do it whether or not you have anything to gain from it yourself. So when an emotionally-healthy person feels genuine empathy, they do so not thinking about themselves. Feeling the terrible grief of another person who has lost somebody to death brings them no pleasure, for example. The feelings of grief are terrible, and they wish not to feel it at all, because they wish for the other person to never have had to feel it.
Artificial empathy - the kind that people with Borderline Personality Disorder tap into, and which makes them believe they are ‘empaths’, is not motivated by altruistic motives. They instead thrive on it. They actually admire this, and enjoy it, the same way that we might find sad poetry beautiful. They are leeches. In fact, the first time I ever discussed this, I probably lost a hundred followers. Why?
Because unhealthy people love - absolutely love - the notion that Borderline Personality Disorder has blessed them with some sort of special superpower that makes them ‘empaths’, which is a non-word. ALL healthy people are empaths.
Anybody who is emotionally healthy naturally has the ability to healthfully empathize.
So if we’re talking about a normal human quality that all people are meant to have just as a natural result of being a healthy human being, is there any such thing as a special, select group of people called ‘empaths’? No. And genuine empathy is not a superpower. Genuine empathy forms a naturally-occurring, inherent part of emotional health.
Pay attention to what we’ve just determined: Empathy is a naturally-occurring result of emotional health, not emotional unhealth.
Are people living with Borderline Personality Disorder emotionally healthy? Absolutely not. So the ‘empathy’ they claim to experience so strongly cannot be real. Because again, true empathy is an identifying aspect of emotional health, not emotional unhealth.
Folks with Borderline Personality Disorder absorb others’ emotions as a way to feel an inferior sort of artificial intimacy with others. Remember, they have lived their entire lives unable to experience genuine intimacy because of the unhealthy perceptions that form the very foundation of their emotional disorder regarding a lack of inherent worth.
They are walking around tremendously deficient in this human need. They need intimacy but they cannot bring themselves to actually follow through on it, because to do so (from their perspective) can only result in them not getting the one thing they so strongly crave.
So they resort to inferior and artificial approximations of it. This fake ‘empathy’ that they believe themselves to have allows them to get a sense of emotional intimacy, without them actually having to invest anything themselves.
You say, well sure they invest - they go out of their way to buy cards, or to visit, or sit with the other person.
That’s not the sort of investment I’m talking about. I’m talking about the investment of reciprocating by revealing your true, vulnerable, exposed, authentic self to another person, even the parts of yourself that you are repulsed by and that you even deny exist.
See, these unhealthy ‘empaths’ can get their high off of somebody else’s sadness, which they then use to feel good about themselves: “I’m doing something really good here, this compensates for what a worthless person I am, this makes up for the things I feel shame about...”
This is an external, artificial form of validation and sense of goodness or worth. And all the while, they’ve never had to invest a single thing of true value, which is genuine empathy and intimacy.
The way they absorb the emotions of others is for selfish, unhealthy purposes. They get to feel a certain ‘righteousness’ in it; meaning, while it’s happening, they are reveling in it, and often consciously thinking about what good people they are for it. It is their imaginary compensation for the sense of worthlessness they feel.
It is the true motives behind their reason for doing it that reveals its unhealthy nature.
Authentic empathy is not just a matter of feeling as other people feel, contrary to what you’ve probably been told a million times. Another critical component separating the genuine article from the fake is the motivations behind it. Emotionally-healthy people do not experience empathy from a need to tap into other people’s emotions for their own needs and pleasure. Instead, they experience genuine empathy from altruistic concern, and often would do anything to not feel what they’re feeling, because they wish for the person they are empathizing with to also not have to feel those things.
One particularly striking difference between fake empathy and authentic empathy is that true empathy has a strong effect on the decisions and personal behavior of the person feeling it, even if this requires sacrifice.
My brother is very good at absorbing others’ feelings, and then doing things to show that he feels this artificial empathy. But always short of anything that requires true, personal, unwanted effort - that is, anything that requires him to change his way. Instead, he considers buying a greeting card or a wristwatch for somebody, and sitting with them for an hour, a sufficient substitute that allows him to avoid having to make any personal changes.
Remember this: Everything he has done to show his "empathy" was only what he was already comfortable doing, which made him feel good about himself, but that did not require any true, uncomfortable sacrifice.
In other words, none of this requires him to do anything that goes against what he is already willing to do voluntarily.
Genuine empathy is not an act of compensation for what you are not doing that you could and should be doing, but that you are not willing to do.
You see, genuine empathy does not act as a substitute for getting your crap together, addressing your own issues, and living differently.
As an example, my brother, bless his confused heart, spent 20 years buying things for people, crying, showing up and visiting with those who were down. But he was also drinking two bottles of vodka every night - and he had three daughters at home whose entire wish in life was to have a sober father.
So if his empathy was genuine, where was his ability to feel the profound sadness and yearnings of his own three, young daughters, and to allow it to affect his behaviors and decisions?
The reality is that his empathy was fake. It was a superficial, meager way to fool himself into feeling a little bit better about himself. That is, a way to excuse what he knew he should be doing, but which would have required much more effort, and that he really was not willing to do: Ever putting in any true effort to identify and address his own emotional unhealth, which is what everybody really wanted. No, doing some artificial act of empathy, and absorbing those feelings of sadness, was a thousand times easier and more self-serving.
Empathy - real empathy - is not self-serving, and it’s not a substitute for sacrifice and self work. Instead, genuine empathy is a motivator for self-sacrifice and self work.
You feel deeply what others feel and need, and you use this to give up drinking, or you use it to figure out why your temper has been so bad lately, and fix it, or you use it to motivate you to go to rehab and do the hard, uncomfortable work of addressing your drug problem.