Tatyana Karpunkina (Russia) Experience of empathy deficit in formally favourable families (case analysis)
The term “empathy” has a wide spectrum of meaning in psychological literature: from the reflection of co-experience and putting oneself in the Other’s place (emotional and communicative context) to a way of being together with the Other, a way of understanding complications and nuances of his inner worlds (existential context, context of meaning).
The expression of empathy includes such processes as authenticity (honesty, genuine presence), identity (being aware of one’s affiliation to some personal position within social roles and its condition) and phenomenological reduction, perception of meaning (comprehension of more general contexts). This point of view excludes the possibility of interpreting empathy only as dissolving in the other, unconditional acceptance and “pure” understanding of him. At the same time it also means readiness for a truly transforming meeting in an existential sense.
Precisely empathy in the family is basis for common sense, a responsible position, the ability to love. Lack of empathy destroys and cripples efforts for mutual understanding. Such deficiciency turns upbringing into pressure, leads to alienation, makes mental psychological maturity impossible. In other words, adults simply lose the ability to feel, to understand what needs to be said and done at which moment in order to create a sense of togetherness. They are unable to be present and therefore empathic.
Formally a family like this looks positive; there are no marks of domestic violence or socially dangerous processes. Yet teenagers, due to their sensitivity and instability, experience deficit of empathy in the family extremely acutely. The case described here is common enough.
Sveta came to the first meeting together with her father. Back then she was 15 years old, a 9th grade student of a state school. She came because of an advert in the paper, to participate in the programme “School of social success for senior grade students”. Sveta’s parents are doctors by education; however, during the 90s they were forced to toil in several jobs, then began their own business and did not return to their profession. Her older sister was studying at a university in Moscow.
According to her dad, Sveta was an obedient, kind-hearted girl earning good grades, only she was often sickly and did not feel confident. This caused him to search for a space where Sveta could improve.
During the first consultation, Sveta herself expressed that she feels empty, that sometimes it was hard to breathe because of fear and uncertainty, and that those around her were strangers, most of all – her parents. They did not have any direct conflicts, they just lived their own lives. Sveta helped out a lot around the house, but according to her, it brought joy neither to her nor her parents. The constant chase of financial prosperity turned her parents into machines, without the right of feelings and exhaustion.
Sveta participated in the programme for two years. The first task she set for herself was to fill the void, to overcome her doubts, fears and awkwardness.
Meeting herself, unjustified risks, awareness of her own weaknesses. Regret and fear. Gratefulness towards other participants of the programme for their support. These were Sveta’s first steps within the programme. During this stage Sveta’s parents were filled with joy about her “revival”, tried to be informed about what took place in the sessions. Sveta shared it with them unwillingly, afraid of their lack of understanding.
Sveta expressed an acute deficit of her parents’ presence in her life. “Their phantoms are present, but they themselves are slipping away.”
Yet her parents, finding out about their daughter’s feelings, felt shocked. The false and “doll-like” side of their relationship came to light. Shame, resentment and fear provoked defensively aggressive reactions. The past lay crumbled, the future was covered with impenetrable fog, while the present brought unbearable pain. Their clear and certain roles disappeared. Her parents chose to hide, “to climb into a tank”, as Sveta put it. She compared her efforts to communicate with them to trying to get a turtle out of its shell – for them it was unnatural and painful.
Eventually Sveta made her family go together with her down the path from “indifferent acceptance” to “acceptance with love”. The deficit of truth and awareness of her own role and place, a formal and impersonal stance towards what was happening made her life acutely worthless, emptied her. Suicidal thoughts, exhaustion, feelings of hopelessness and emptiness were hidden to Sveta’s parents.
Her complicated and conflict-prone relationship to her parents was more alive and important than the “fictitious” world. It was painful and frightening, but more honest, closer and more genuine. Hope grew in place of the emptiness, and Sveta fought for it.
During the summer break a tragic event took place in Sveta’s life – one of her close relatives died prematurely. The feeling of her world collapsing, inevitability of suffering. Sudden maturing. And longing for the group as an oasis of stability and joy. Taking responsibility for what happens in the group and changing her role from receiving to giving helped Sveta to acquire new meaning of her life in the group and her further growth in the programme. It meant still searching for her role, continuing trials and risks.
Encountering death turned out to be awakening for Sveta. Together with despair (“nothing can be changed!”), yearning for life appeared. She acquired a new foundation upon which to base her life priorities. She strived to choose what is important for her “forever”. And only then meaning and the strength to forgive appeared. She understood that “forever” brings her closer to God. Her honesty stopped being a traumatizing goal for her. Only now could she be empathic towards her parents, and acquired the possibility for it to be mutual.
It becomes obvious that the expression of empathy towards a maturing teenager includes:
- Genuine presence: Do I exist? When? Where? What for?
- Definition of oneself, one’s words, one’s affiliation: Who am I? What do I live for? Whom do I belong to?
- Perception of meanings: For whom do I live? Towards what? Conformity and timeliness. Awareness of one’s beliefs and myths, and of their separateness from reality. Acceptance and honest reflection.
- Bringing eternity into one’s life through meaningful words and actions. Trust and loyalty. Absolute and unconditional.