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Empathy, circuits, and self-deception

Posted: April 24th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Introspection, Marital advice? Really?, Self Improvement | 2 Comments »

Sometimes in life, with no warning and no obvious desperate need, something comes from out of nowhere and knocks you out of a complacent stupor.

The book

Last year, someone loaned me the book you see to the left. I decided it looked like a good plane read and took it with me to Ruby DCamp. It wasn’t particularly well-written, and was far from a page-turner. But every few pages, it was like banging a gong in my brain:

Brandon. Wake the heck up. You are acting like a selfish douche.”

Basically, you need to go right now and buy it. It helped me connect the dots on much of human behavior, especially my own, and the ludicrous things we do to avoid having to change our worldview, even just a little bit.

The basic premise is: If you are treating anyone, anywhere, in any way, as if they’re an object instead of a person, you are chipping away at your own psyche by betraying what you know is right. You’ll then manufacture a story, a version of reality that protects you from dealing with this until you lose the ability to connect with others at all.

All of this caught me off guard. I began to realize that I was wantonly wrecking relationships all around me, merely to serve the need to be right and just. I cried hot tears of shame on the flight to think of the way I’d treated strangers, coworkers, even my wife.

My finely-honed skills of justification were leading me to the kind of callousness and under-the-surface anger that I can pretty much guarantee would have ended my marriage. Basically, pretty serious stuff.

There’s a prevalent metaphor in the book about people being “in the box” that I didn’t really latch on to. However, I was struck with the non-intuitive insight that anything you do to help while in this headspace isn’t really helping. It’s like trying to chart a course to the other side of the world if you believe it’s flat. You have to step into another worldview to do anything of any use.

The Circuit

So we have this big, huge problem in our lives. And no ability to solve it by any conventional means.

Guess what the secret is to stepping out of your worldview? To want it. That’s it.

If you decide to truly desire to understand how another person is feeling, you will almost immediately reverse the effects of objectifying another human, and you will begin to put yourself in their shoes.

Unlike almost anything else in life, you can wish empathy into existence.

You then begin to wish the best for this person. You may even wonder what you could do to help this person. You may even find that there is something you can do for this person.

So here’s the thought pattern I saw emerge from this line of thinking:

  1. Judgement/Objectification (or any act of self-betrayal)
  2. Justification (the story we tell)
  3. Realization of the act of self-betrayal
  4. Desire to empathize & correct the action
  5. Re-Humanization of those we objectify (and apology)

That’s a circuit. The goal is to close it as quickly as possible. (In IT parlance, it’s about Mean Time To Resolution, not Mean Time Between Failures.)

Two examples

I’ll give two examples: one from the book, and one from my life.

In the book, on of the first stories is of a husband who’s trying to get some rest, with his sleeping wife beside him. Their baby begins crying, which he tries to ignore. He commits the first act of self-betrayal by not helping. “I’m sure she’ll get up.”

Then the justifications. “Why isn’t she getting up?” “Doesn’t she care that I have work in the morning?” “She obviously is lazy and doesn’t care about my needs.”

So here’s a fully-concocted story that buries anger and resentment inside a person. But if he’d stopped, he could have realized that he she was just his loving wife, that she was sleeping, and perhaps she really needed his help with the baby that evening.

In my own life, I’ve spent decades training all my powers of observation, psychology, and analysis on trying to stitch together someone’s story… so that I can judge them. I still have this nasty habit.

Last week, my wife and I were fortunate enough to travel to Hawaii, and we spent a morning on a cycling excursion with a newly married couple. The young lady had nothing good to say about her trip. She was staying in the most expensive hotel and dining at all the finest restaurants on the island, and found faults in every part of her trip. The bed was too soft to sleep in. The food was disappointing.

I used my skills to project into the future for this couple, and see much trouble for this princess and her pea. And what did I get for my efforts? I got to turn this young lady from a human into a measuring stick that found me superior in every observable way.

But I couldn’t leave it there. My brain is now too aware of the concept of self-betrayal to let me get away with it anymore. I began to realize that here was a young lady that had one chance to have a memorable honeymoon, things kept going wrong for her, and she hadn’t yet gathered the life experience to be grateful for what she had. There might have even been something kind I could have done to help make her trip memorable in a positive way. I stewed over this for a while, apologized to my wife for the negativity, and went back to having a wonderful time.

And that’s just one tiny example of many dozens of acts of self-betrayal I commit on a daily basis.

Closing the circuit faster

Trying to close the circuit can be overwhelming.

You have to forge new neurological pathways, which is always uncomfortable. It requires that you assume that you are not necessarily noble and good and just, which chops your ego into little pieces. Many of us rarely get past Justification. Getting past Realization can seem impossible.

But here’s the amazing thing: if you simply expose yourself to this concept and it rings true for you, it will begin to seep into your thinking. You will no longer be able to enjoy guilt-free judgment of other human beings.

I still have these moments of judgement and anger with my wife, but I now have the gnawing sensation at the back of my mind, the Bat-Signal that tells me I’ve committed an act of self-betrayal. That part is automatic.

Then, I try to see how long it takes me to close the circuit. It still often takes me a day or two to come around, but I’m getting faster in many cases. Eventually, I hope to open and close the circuit so quickly that the net effect is that I no longer sit in judgement over (or objectify) anyone.

What to do next

How many times do I need to tell you? Go get the book! But you can play along at home even if you haven’t read it. The next time you find yourself angry or seething at a person, try to just want to know how they’re feeling. Start telling yourself their story instead of yours, and see where that takes you.

I am a relatively new practitioner of this type of thinking, but I can tell you that it will open your heart to serving others. This will lead you to real friendships, lasting relationships, contentment, happiness, and pretty much every measure of success that will matter to you as you look back on life.


  • Nicholas Stewart

    Great post. It’s one of my favorite books. I need to read it again. I believe that having empathy for others will solve most of our relationship problems.

    Since you liked this book so much, might I recommend the Tao Te Ching? It’s also one of my favorites.

    • http://brandonhays.com/blog Brandon Hays

      I re-discovered Tao Te Ching (after 15 years since comparative religions class in HS) via a George Harrison lyric a couple of weeks ago. I haven’t read it all but the few bits I’ve read, I’ve found very impactful.

      Thanks for being the “someone” that loaned me this book. It’s definitely help shape my thinking over the past few months.