Updated: May 27
What if I told you that we’re all likely to develop Empathy Deficit Disorder (EDD)? I mean, it’s not an official mental disorder you’ll find in the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. It was made up by Douglas LaBier Ph.D., a psychologist who noticed lack of empathy’s serious mental impact on individuals and the increasing tensions within diverse societies.
Still pretty bad, I know.
Read on to learn how we can avoid this psychological disturbance as individuals and as a society.
What Is Empathy Deficit Disorder (EDD)?
Empathy Deficit Disorder (EDD) is the inability to step outside oneself and tune into what other people are experiencing, especially those whose feelings, thinking, and beliefs are different from what one is used to. This causes communication issues, conflicts in intimate relationships, and hatred towards people or groups whose traditions or ways of life are unlike one’s own.
Signs that Someone Lacks Empathy
Lack of empathy has multiple degrees and forms. It’s probably why it still isn’t an official mental disorder. We’ve all been guilty of it at some point. I’ll admit I’m occasionally challenged with some of these signs of empathy deficit, too.
Difficulty making new friends
Struggle in making emotional connections
Quick to criticize or dismiss others
Inability to show appreciation towards others
Strong sense of entitlement and expectation
Refusing to listen to others; too much focus on oneself
Failure to understand that those who are suffering aren’t the cause of their own pain
How One Develops Lack of Empathy
Lack of empathy is linked to severe disorders such as narcissism, antisocial personality disorders, and psychopathy. But according to LaBier, anyone can develop it when they become detached from who they truly are due to the following distorted perceptions of oneself or how the self should be.
Belief that acquiring and achieving things are “normal” or “healthy” ways to live
Extreme focus on acquiring power, status, money
Fixation on acquiring both things and people; promotes vanity and self-importance and equates what you have with who you are
The delusion that you’re completely independent and self-sufficient
These behaviors are a result of our desire to alleviate what Joseph Heller, author of Catch 22, believes to be one of the greatest plagues of mankind and what Mother Teresa calls the problem of modern times. Loneliness, or existential loneliness to be specific—the awareness that we are alone in our existence, separate from nature and other human beings; just insignificant tiny specks of dust in the universe.
According to social psychologist and psychoanalyst Erich Fromm, love or “the union with somebody, or something, outside oneself, under the condition of retaining the separateness and integrity of one's own self,” is human’s instinctive solution to overcoming loneliness.
Fromm believed that with love, we are able to transcend our individual life through sharing and communion; the experience of solidarity with others; that who they are, where they come from, or what they stand for no longer matters, only the quality of loving which is naturally empathetic.
So how come this love doesn’t seem to be that present these days?
The Disconnected Self
“Modern man has transformed himself into a commodity; He is alienated from himself, from his fellow men and from nature...His main aim is profitable exchange of his skills, knowledge, and of himself, his "personality package" with others who are equally intent on a fair and profitable exchange. Life has no goal except the one to move, no principle except the one of fair exchange, no satisfaction except the one to consume.” —Erich Fromm, The Art of Loving
We currently live in the age of what I call the superficial self—manufactured through the radical promotion of self-importance, vanity, and false self-care virtues that are all imminent in the media these days. We’ve developed a sense of peddling who we are as a brand with a heavy basis on what we have or achieving those social media goals (e.g. body goals, relationship goals, vacation goals). We think this is what makes us attractive, loveable, or “somebody.”
But all this does is limit one’s perception of reality to only within one’s commercialized self; the disconnected self that believes doing this or attaining that will make them fit in, be well-liked, become a desirable partner, or deserve someone of the same profitable standards as one’s own. It’s a narcissistic orientation wherein anything outside of ourselves has no reality and is only viewed for its being useful or dangerous to us.
We’re having a hard time aligning the self with what’s outside of it. We’re losing touch with the reality that we are all interconnected as humans, which impairs our ability to make genuine connections, bridge differences, and develop compassion towards others.
On the interpersonal level, we see this manifest in co-dependent bonds formed out of desperate need or narcissistic motives (fame, loneliness, money, power, etc.). The process of knowing one another is lost, impeding the progression of better mutual understanding. It’s a common pattern in family conflicts, toxic friendships, and romantic relationships based on attachment to own ideas of love or of someone rather than an organic connection.
On the societal level, it’s the violent outrages across the globe. There is a dire need to realize that this world is a community that has a place for everyone. It’s meant to be a loving space where we can share and learn from both our differences and similarities.
Repositioning the Self Outside of It
Erich Fromm’s definition of love is neither selfless nor selfish. It is simply the extension of oneself. We can form bonds with others without sacrificing our identity. We don’t need to conform or force others to conform to trends or standards born out of the collective distortion of our view of ourselves. We just need to accept that each person in this world is unique and that instead of aiming for uniformity, we should exert more effort in achieving unity.
Every phenomenon outside ourselves—an experience, object, or person—gives us something to learn. It’s okay not to want each and every one of them, but don’t contradict anything until you have at least taken the time to learn about it. Free yourself from any bias. Do your research. Don’t be afraid to ask or interact with the world outside your own.
That could even settle explosive polarization across various cultural, political, religious, and social groups. Here’s the problem: one invalidates the other’s practices because they’re unfamiliar, hence “wrong”; the other justifiably defends their position but often in a way that overlooks the other’s valid concerns, feelings, or inquiries. Neither is willing to sit down and learn from one another with the aim of developing a common understanding.
Each group is attached to certain standards, preventing them from connecting with others. And in it are also individuals struggling with their alignment with their family, peers, significant others, and the society they’re in. Now the question is, with so much to calibrate our perceptions for, will we ever manage to place ourselves in the right position?
Fromm believed that love is an art to master. Honing our capacity to love is a lifelong journey. It starts with learning to love ourselves for who we are not for what we have. We need to accept ourselves for the good and the bad; the bad being the natural tendency of every human to commit mistakes, fail, and lose perspective at times.
Only then will we be able to generate within us, a love that grows; the acceptance of ourselves that we can share with others.
The Bottom Line
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