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Jim Infantino

An email discussion with E. regarding my post about Inverted Empathy.

woman comforting friend

Photo by Polina Zimmerman from Pexels

Hi, Jim. Could you elaborate further on the "inverted empathy"? I came across your model before by chance, and in the process of looking up when empaths clash, I came across this again and believe this occurred. And could possibly be occurring in another respect? Not sure. Specifically, if you have anything on healing from an act of inverted empathy it is appreciated. Or something that you might find helpful.Thank you so much for any insights or thoughts you might have.


Hi E.,

I’ve been pondering your email for a while and I will try to respond with something approaching intelligent.

My starting place for that article is my experience with meditation and an understanding that empathy is an essential part of human nature. There are many views on this. In my study of Buddhism, I find it called Buddha Nature which they believe everyone has. From an evolutionary perspective, it is caused by the fact that humans have survived not because of our individual physical power, but the power we have when we work together in social groups. Empathy is required for survival and empathy is part of the mind. It also occurs in animals in different and similar ways.

Empathy becomes inverted and used to justify anger and aggression when a person is afraid. Empathy is fundamentally frightening. It makes us aware of the existence and experience of other people. Our world is full of humans now so our awareness of the existence of the experience of others is heightened. People can torment themselves with models (see my post on models) of people they create that mimic the fear of the person modeling them.

A person might think, “just like me, that other person wants to be safe.” For one who might have caused harm, or been part of a group of people who have caused harm to another person or group it turns to fear because of the empathic modeling of the other and recognizing that they might be angry or fearful of the opposing group. Empathy and fear becomes hatred and anger in what I’ve labeled “inverted empathy.”

How can we heal this? I haven’t thought much about that. Perhaps I should have. I would recommend using pure empathy and listening to counteract the empathy that becomes fear. I think it’s also important to recognize that when we react to a person, we generally react to the model of the person we’ve created, not the real person we see and hear in front of us. Our models are flawed. The cure for that is listening without modeling which takes practice. The root of that practice is mindfulness.

When we quiet the mind, we start to become aware of the modeling process and recognize the flaws that are inherent in that process. Modeling other people is empathic and built on an ability to know and belong but it is always just a model, not reality. That sort of empathy is not pure and referred often in American Buddhism as ‘Idiot Compassion.’ Pure empathy and compassion are based on emptiness which is the recognition that the models we create to navigate our way through the world are like vapor. They arise and dissipate. They have no inherent existence. They fail, and we rebuild them based on our experience. They can never be real and yet, they are all we have.

When I meet someone and listen to them while being aware of the empty nature of my models, I can start to really hear that other person. Their models of reality, their models of me, and the churning nature of existence enters my awareness and my fear lessens. As my fear dissolves, my anger and hatred has no footing. My models of that person and groups of people become less solid and real. This, in my opinion, is the way to heal inverted empathy.

I hope that helps.

... to be continued, I hope.


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