Empathy or “member of the wedding”?

September 17, 2013

I was explaining last night to someone that her tendency to get, as she admitted, “all wound up” in the troubles of a particular troubled person was draining to me.

One of her defenses was that she was “empathizing.”

I responded that I don’t think it’s empathy but rather overly identifying with the other person and then emoting a lot about their situation.

Sympathy is one thing, understanding what it is probably like for that other person to be going through what they’re going through is some thing, too, but pouring forth lots of distress as if one were themselves going through the situation, and going through it without much of a healthy perspective, is a third thing, and something I think is not helpful and in fact harmful.  Including to interlocutors like me.

So I brought it to her attention, pointed out that some of her previous interlocutors were more impervious and dismissive of her emoting than I am, and also less prone to being concerned about whether there really is an emergency occurring that requires a lot of time and energy.

I have no idea whether she will handle the next “crisis” any differently.  My own concern is how I will handle my own response to however she does handle it.

I use the “member of the wedding” phrase as a shorthand for this sort of phenomenon, based on my hazy recollection of the book The Member of the Wedding, by Carson McCullers, and its use there.

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One Response to “Empathy or “member of the wedding”?”

  1. Jeff in New Jersey Says:

    Pointed and logical observations, Diana.

    Yet this sort of “emotional identification” with anoher is very much more common with women than with men. These days it is the fashion to deny fundamental psychological differences, but I believe they do exist. I would not feel attracted to a woman lacking in that way. She would be merely a “person”: who happened to be female rather than a “natural-born woman” with womanly spirit and feeling.

    A beautiful face and figure with all the right bio equipment could never make up for this psychological deficiency.

    Half your genetic material on the female side all comes from women who were mothers. Women without the right emotional makeup for motherhood were likely selected out.


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