Cognitive Empathy

A friend commented on my prolific blog writing lately.  I write more when I’m processing something.  I have another blog.  Were I dealing with an exacerbation in symptoms in one of my daughters I would be posting there.  Some of the content here could go there as some of what I am dealing with in my husband smacks of mental illness–an anxiety disorder.  He does carry a recent diagnosis, but it doesn’t seem fair or even possible to try to shove all relational issues under the label of a DSM diagnosis–even if one person would like to try.

I have more than a few readers who come from families of origin in which there was a parent with a personality disorder.  My mother has borderline personality disorder.  I witnessed this phenomenon in her.  If one tried to hold her accountable for bad behavior, the common response was: “Well, I have problems with depression.  I don’t deal with anger well.”  That was it.  That was her Get-Out-of-Jail-Free card.  Anything and everything was allowed in terms of the spectrum of human behavior simply because she could not regulate herself.  Therefore, she was ultimately not responsible for anything that occurred thereafter.  I have found this to be a common worldview amongst those with personality disorders.  Why? There seems to be an innate inability to understand that their behavior affects others.  I would probably call this problem an impaired ability to perspective take.

Some people might identify this as an empathy problem, but emotional empathy does not seem to be a problem in those with certain personality disorders.  A person with borderline personality disorder, for example, is often overwhelmed with emotions to the point that they cannot regulate them.  Perspective-taking, however, is different.  I would almost like to call this cognitive empathy otherwise known as ‘theory of mind’ (ToM).  A deficiency in ToM is a hallmark symptom in autism spectrum disorders, and a recent study was done on borderline personality disorder and ToM.  Is there a deficiency in ToM in those with the BPD diagnosis? Sure enough, there was.  ToM is an academic descriptor for describing one’s ability to understand that you don’t know what I know, and I don’t know what you know–cognitive empathy.  The English language does not allow for two separate linguistic descriptions of empathy that exist which are both emotional and cognitive empathy.  So, emotional and cognitive empathy get lumped under one word–empathy.

When most people think of empathy, they tend to think of emotions.  They imagine putting themselves in someone else’s place and feeling what the other might feel.  This is a form of empathy.  Emotional empathy is the catalyst for compassion and emotional perspective-taking.  Once I’ve been empathic, I can then begin to understand where the other person is coming from and take action to understand their emotional experience.

Cognitive empathy is similar except it deals with thoughts and beliefs.  We use cognitive empathy when we analyze literature: “What was the character thinking when he said…?”  and “What did Jack’s character believe Jane’s character was going to do when Jane said…?”  Here are two examples of first and second-order beliefs.  Women are particularly adept at parsing behavior using their cognitive empathy.  Have you ever sat and listened to a group of women talk about their significant others?

“Well, what do you think he meant by that?”

“I don’t know, but I asked his best friend what he thought he might have meant.  And, he didn’t know either.  But, I think he did know! So, I think his best friend not telling me means that he knows what he did mean, and the two of them are just not talking.”

“Why? What are they up to…?”

“Well, I asked his brother.”

This is all cognitive empathy.  Who knows what? What do I believe the other person believes? What do I believe this person believes about that person? Speaking in terms of gender stereotyping, women can be observed to engage in this kind of discussion.  It’s modeled to them through their mothers, other women, and even women in entertainment.  Ever watch a soap opera? This stereotype is highly amplified here:

“I saw you, Drake! You were out with Deandra last night at the drive-in!”

“No! I promise! It wasn’t me!”

“Don’t you lie to me! I talked to Vajessica who told me that she talked to Kaila, and Kaila told me that you and Deandra were planning on eloping! Deandra confirmed this when she told me that you and your twin were talking about fishing, and we all know what that means!”

It’s all a mish-mash of ridiculous assumptions based on believing that one person knows what the other person is thinking, but it illustrates the point well.  When we apply our own set of beliefs and thoughts to another person’s actions, then we run into a big problem.  We fail to properly engage in perspective-taking.

This is the problem I had with my mother.  This is a problem I’m having in my marriage.  This is a problem I see in other people’s relationships if they are in a relationship with someone with narcissistic or borderline tendencies.  The person expressing the disordered personality assumes that their partner or adult child will treat them in the same manner that they will.  There is the breakdown in cognitive empathy.

What does this look like relationally?

If you are dealing with a narcissist, then the narcissist may go for the jugular in arguments because s/he will assume that you will do the same.  What s/he would do, in their mind, you will do.  There is little to no differentiation in their mind regarding you.  Whatever would appease them will appease you.  What s/he needs, you need.  This can be observed in other disordered personalities.  Because of the poorly developed cognitive empathy, your thoughts and beliefs are not viewed as different, important, valid, or often even separate.  Therefore, you will not be validated.  If your partner validates themselves, then you are validated.  If your partner feels happy, then you are happy.  If your partner is sexually satisfied, then you are satisfied.  If your partner is at peace, then you are at peace.  If your partner liked something, then you liked it.  To disagree in any way is to call into question their entire experience, and that would lead to cutting off narcissistic supply.

What is narcissistic supply? It’s “a type of admiration, interpersonal support, or sustenance drawn by an individual from his or her environment and essential to their self-esteem” as described by psychoanalyst Otto Fenichel in the early 20th c.

If you are dealing with someone with arrested development in the form of extreme emotional immaturity combined with a highly developed anxiety disorder, then you will see similar behaviors because entitlement will play a role.  Anxiety affects the brain profoundly.  It activates the limbic system and keeps the amygdala–the reptilian brain–online.  When the reptilian brain is online, a person is impulsive, reactionary, easily frustrated, mean, and easily angered.  They are very forgetful because the part of the brain in charge of decision making, empathy, and planning is not online which is the frontal lobe.  The ability to be intimate is in the pre-frontal cortex.  Only humans possess this brain structure.  When the amygdala is constantly firing, the pre-fontal cortex will not be working.  Intimacy and anxiety do not go together.  Anger and intimacy do not go together.  Constant forgetfulness and intimacy don’t go together.

This is why, once again, therapeutic interventions are so vital for personality disorders, disordered personalities, and neuropsychological diagnoses like anxiety.  They destroy relationships and prevent forward progress in life.  They prevent people from learning how to be better humans.  Emotional empathy is a necessary component of a well-developed personality, and it’s so important in relationships.  Cognitive empathy, however, is equally important.  Without the ability to perspective take and learn that others have equally valid thoughts and beliefs that may or may not reflect our own, we will not be able to mature properly and consequently be in healthy adult relationships.

Cognitive empathy.  Add it to your list of interpersonal skills.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: