Empathy is the new love – and what that means!?

You know how in the world of high fashion grey is the new black? Well, empathy is the new love. Okay, enough with the tenuous humor. What does this mean? Culturally? Politically? Psychodynamically? Polemically? Critically?

Culturally, the context is a conversation in the popular press about empathy. Empathy is now a major publishing event. There is a wave of books on empathy – popular, scientific, political, and scholarly. For example, Frans de Waal’s The Age of Empathy (2009) explores empathy between humans and higher animals; J.D. Trout’s The Empathy Gap (2009) considers empathy and social justice from the perspective of Ignatian Humanism; Jeremy Rifkin’s The Empathic Civilization (2009), now reportedly at $11 dollars, an 800 page hardcover (don’t drop it on your foot) channels Teilhard de Chardin’s idea of a global consciousness, now including the politics of empathy; Jean Decety’s Social Neuroscience (2010) establishes correlations between sensations, affects, and emotions using functional magnetic resonance imaging technology; Simon Baron-Cohen’s Zero Degrees of Empathy (2011) considers the role of empathy in cruelty and diseases of empathy such as psychopathy and autism. Thomas Farrow’s Empathy in Mental Illness (2007) drills down scientifically on the latter diseases of empathy. At the risk of bragging – but if not now, when? – my own empathy book is hard but worthwhile and belongs in the extreme scholarly bucket (see side bar on this web site) as does my refereed on-line “Empathy and Sympathy in Ethics” (http://www.iep.utm.edu/emp-symp). Politically, President Obama continues to drop references  to “empathy” into his speeches, calling out “empathy” as a criterion for US Supreme Court nominees as well as “empathy” in the wake of the mass killings that also wounded Congressional Representative Giffords.  Obama’s books contain numerous references to empathy, which, for him means roughly “apply the criterion of how your actions make the other feel and do so prior to acting” as he was reportedly taught by his Mom. You cannot buy publicity like it at any price. This is the context for the discussion of empathy as the new love – what people really want (and what that means).

The main assertion? Under one interpretation of contemporary human relations, people reportedly want love more than anything else. Love is a many-splendored thing including: bonding between neighbors as a kind of Christian agape and the foundation of community; never having to say you’re sorry; just another four-lettered word, which is not the same as sublimated sexuality (itself yet another meaning of “love”) since as a four-lettered word there is no sublimation, it’s just hormones all the way down; the target of narratives about completing the human spheroid in Plato’s Symposium; the last, best hope of happiness. Now fast forward from the days of Erich Fromm’s The Art of Loving (1963) through Alex Comfort’s The Joy of Sex (1974) to today. The argument of this post is that what people “really” want more than anything else is to be gotten for who they are – i.e., people want empathy. This is an unexpressed and undeclared commitment; and something of which most adults are only dimly aware until they get some and discover, “Oh, that’s really cool. It seems to work. May I have another?” Of course, it’s not an exclusive either-or choice; and people still want to be loved too. Just not quite as much as they want to be gotten empathically for who they are. People can get love from Hallmark Cards or from the Internet. There is really a glut in the market for love, though many issues remain with quality. Like any mass product, the quality is questionable. Really fine love remains a scarce commodity in the final analysis. Empathy is a relatively even rarer capacity in the market – though, truth be told, it is common to every mother (or care-taker) or a new born child. We will set aside this paradox for a future post to further consider adult empathy.

In the context of psychodynamic psychotherapy, absent empathy, psychotherapy is hard to distinguish from dental work. It is painful. Is it any wonder that people are asking for psychotropic drugs as if they were an anesthetic. Is it any wonder that Talk Therapy has been in decline since Listening to Prozac was discovered by clients and insurance companies alike? Rare the person who says, “I prefer to do it the bloody hard way – let’s meet more times a week.” I hasten to add that if a person is developing a suicide plan, they should be encouraged (required) to take their sedatives and related medications (SSRIs, SNRIs, etc.).

In the psychodynamic context, this immediately inspires additional controversy. From the perspective of psychotherapy – whether self-psychology oriented, existential, or classical – given that empathy is the new love, if a therapist offers empathy does that mean he or she is offering love? It would be a mischievous distortion to say so or do so. Mischievous and wicked. In general, such a thing wouldn’t work, does not work, and is a non-starter. The “cure through love” is “wild” and a boundary violation – and it should be so dismissed. Still, there is a significant sense in which the idealization of the therapist by the client is related to the idealization that also occurs in love. This is a function of the transference. The transference of idealizing and aggrandizing attachments (connections) from the client’s other relations into the therapy and onto the person of the therapist. Simply stated, if love shows up as idealization in the transference, then so be it. The love in question is related to the client’s defense mechanisms, resistances, and historical patterns. It could also be related to the therapist’s counter-transference; but in either case it is independent of the therapist’s empathic methods of data gathering about how the client experiences love, hate, fear, anger, sadness, and happiness. Love, its idealization or aggradization, will get interpreted along with resistance using empathic methods.

Polemically, and with apologies to Melanie Klein, the suggestion that empathy is the new love invites resistance from the point of view of the paranoid position. No one is advocating an inappropriate “cure through love” (certainly not me). Still, an approach through empathy can inspire fear of non-conformity and dissent and “turn off” psychotherapists who think/feel more in terms of resistance. Some people are scared of empathy because it requires them to open up emotionally and contain another’s feelings, granted even if only in terms of vicarious experience (introspection). In other words, it isn’t just that clients haven’t yet found anyone as wonderful as the empathic psychotherapist, providing a gracious and generous listening. It is that psychotherapy training today is targeted at helping clients deal with and overcome their resistances, borne from prior disappointments, conflicts and deficiencies rather than promote empathy, creativity, humor, or wisdom. There are plenty of the former; less of the latter; and it is just plain more hard work to get both together and converged. The paranoid position goes immediately to “there must be something wrong”. If we are not interpreting resistance right away from the start and continuously, there must be something wrong. However, there is nothing wrong. Resistance happens. Tactically, it is useful and more effective to interpret (“undercut”) resistance in an empathic context. Still, while there is nothing wrong, there is something missing. Absent empathy, psychotherapeutic inquiry is indistinguishable from a root canal.

Critically, one of the classic texts on empathy is Heinz Kohut, How Does Analysis Cure? – the short answer is “empathy”; but it is not an easy read for the average, intelligent, upper class undergraduate. An easier choice on sustained empathy in the context of treatment might perhaps be Arnold Goldberg’s Being of Two Minds (1999), Ernest Wolf’s Treating the Self (1988), or even Bruno Bettelheim’s A Home for the Heart (1974) or The Uses of Enchantment (1975). I am unrepentant in my admiration for Bettelheim’s writing (but that is a story for another post). In addition to the above-cited books on empathy, the reader may find additional resources (papers, links, posts) on empathy on this web site. If you don’t read, see the movies Blade Runner, staring a young Harrison Ford, and The Lives of Others, about an apparatnikin the former Communist East Germany. In both, empathy plays a decisive role. The closing recommendation? If you are seeking psychotherapy services, make sure you ask about the capabilities of your prospective provider in the area of empathy. It is crucial to success. If you are a psychotherapist, get that button from the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and “Don’t panic!” Respectfully decline the paranoid position. There is nothing wrong here. There is nothing wrong with a conversation about empathy. There is plenty of resistance to interpret and empathy can provide an empowering context to do so. Finally, all the usual disclaimers apply. Is this popular psychology? Hey, this is a blog post – you bet it is.

Since this is a blog post, I end on a personal note. As I write this, I do so as someone who has been on both sides of the therapist/patient interface as well as the therapist/client one. It is going to sound a tad like bragging here at the backend but people might really be wondering and if not now when? …  In addition to long work on Heidegger, the phenomenologists, and existentialists, qualifications for commenting on issues of empathy is that my works on empathy are footnotes in the self psychologists Goldberg, Wolf, and Basch (see bibliography below).  This list of what factors are on the critical path is not complete nor is my knowledge and experience; all the usual disclaimers apply; so your feedback, criticism, experiences, impertinent remarks, and comments are hereby requested. Please let me hear from you.


Agosta, Lou. (2010). Empathy in the Context of Philosophy.London: Palgrave/ Macmillan.

__________. (1984). “Empathy and intersubjectivity,” Empathy I, ed. J. Lichtenberg et al.Hillsdale,NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Press.

__________. (1980). “The recovery of feelings in a folktale,” Journal of Religion and Health, Vol. 19, No. 4, Winter 1980: 287-97.

__________. (1976). “Intersecting language in psychoanalysis and philosophy,” International Journal of Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy, Vol. 5, 1976: 507-34.

Basch, Michael F. (1983). “Empathic understanding: a review of the concept and some theoretical considerations,” Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, Vol. 31, No. 1: 101-126. (See p. 114.) .

Gehrie, Mark (2011). “From archaic narcissism to empathy for the self: the evolution of new capacities in psychoanalysis,” Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, Vol. 59, No. 2: 313-333.

Goldberg, Arnold. (2011). “The enduring presence of Heinz Kohut: empathy and its vicissitudes,” Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, Vol. 59, No. 2: 289-311. (See  pp. 296, 309.) .

Kohut, Heinz. (1984). How Does Analysis Cure? Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

David Terman. (2012). “Empathy and neuroscience: a psychoanalytic perspective,” Empathy: From Bench to Bedside, ed. Jean Decety. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press: 291-02.

Wolf, Ernest S. (1988). Treating the Self.New York: TheGuilford Press. (See pp. 17, 171.)

This post and all contents of this site (c) Lou Agosta, Ph.D. and the Chicago Empathy Project

Please get in touch with further questions or for further ideas. Let me hear from you.

Categories: autism, empathic interpretation, Empathy, empathy consulting, Feeling, talk therapy

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1 reply

  1. “Still, an approach through empathy can inspire fear of non-conformity and dissent and “turn off” psychotherapists who think/feel more in terms of resistance.”

    Hmm, I’m not altogether sure that this statement is true. Love–in the human, existential sense–does not obscure analysis of resistance. Rather, the non-erotically charged love that the above-mentioned theorists posit (potentially) frees the analyst from the limitations of an impossible neutrality.

    In any case, bravo for the insightful and nuanced work. I look forward to reading more from you.

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