Trumpism: Daily Examples of a Stunning Lack of Compassion

Day to day interactions reveal a chilling absence of empathy and compassion.

Posted Oct 01, 2015

Emotional intelligence (EI) is a valuable resource and skill set to have in the complex, hectic lives that we lead today. Folks with EI tend to demonstrate the abilities to manage their emotional expression while under stress, to adapt to changing circumstances, to identify and communicate their feelings, and to show positive self-regard and self-compassion (to not “beat oneself up” when things go wrong). They show a lot of grace under pressure, and are good folks to have on your team, or on your side, when a crisis happens, or when there is a fast-approaching deadline on an important project. EI is associated with satisfaction with life, psychological well-being, academic performance, and leadership aspirations (Killian, 2012), and it is a factor in the resilience of helping professionals who work with trauma survivors (Killian, 2008).

Another aspect of emotional intelligence is perspective taking, the ability to empathize with others, and to have compassion for persons other than oneself. It’s a great skill, especially if you're a therapist.  I tend to empathize with people a lot — it's not something I turn on and off like a switch. If I am walking down the street at night, after having a lovely dinner with my spouse, and I see a couple in their late sixties really struggling with a flat tire, I don't hesitate to help them. They do not have to ask.  And, perhaps, I hope that others would show care and consideration for my well being, and that of my family.

Lately, though, I’ve noticed that a number of people I have interacted with have failed to show any capacity for empathy. It’s almost as if they are missing a crucial circuit—they demonstrate little to no compassion, or ability to see where you are coming from as you speak to them. Exchanges instead are seen as opportunities for one-upmanship, or to show that they could not care less about what you are talking about.  

Here are a few recent examples:

Neighbor: “Hey! You going to work out?”

I: “Yeah, want to squeeze it in now, as I may be coming down with that bad virus my son is suffering through.”

Neighbor: “Well, I don’t get sick.”

Hard to believe, right? This happened yesterday. I'd just communicated that I might be getting the same sickness my son has, an illness sweeping through the same school system that my neighbor's son also attends, by the way, and she expressed no concern about my son’s health, mine, or even her own son’s, but seizes the moment instead to talk about how she doesn’t get sick. Let’s decode what she’s really saying: “I am superior—what, you succumb to viruses? That’s so a millennium ago.” Her reply is abrupt, and instead of approaching, or meeting the speaker where s/he is, it disconnects and sets her apart. It’s almost a non sequitur. Here are some of her other options: “How is your son?” “Hope your son feels better soon.” “Hope you don’t catch it.” “Have a good workout!” Or, even, to spontaneously break into song, and croon, “Shake if off, shake it o-off!”

I was at a parent-teacher back-to-school event last week, and was speaking with my son’s chemistry teacher before his presentation of the course curriculum to the five parents present, and we spoke briefly about his favorite T.V. show, Breaking Bad. I endeavored to keep what I was saying cryptic and spoiler-free in case another person might watch the episode we were talking about, and said “No spoilers.” A woman behind me intoned, “I am too busy, and my time is too precious, to waste sitting in front of a screen.” Wow. The message again was: “I am superior—what, you watch TV? Are you a fossil, or a fool?”

And, a colleague emailed me a year ago to ask why I was not present at a meeting that I was “expected to attend.” This was the week that my best friend of 45 years was in hospice, and I was spending my last days and hours with him. I replied that this was the reason I hadn’t attended the meeting, and then received no response. Nothing. Not then, or ever since. That’s simply cold. The Inhumans from Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. would demonstrate a more humane approach.

I suppose a lack of compassion, empathy, or ability to see a situation from another person’s point of view can help people be calculating, incisive, and self-promoting at any cost, unfettered by puerile caring for others--sort of like a Frank Underwood or his chilly wife in House of Cards (no spoilers, again). They do the “right thing” only for appearances, and political gain. But a crucial element of what makes us human is the ability to care, and to understand, and to “get” what another person is saying, and not saying, and what they are asking for without asking. I wonder if the folks I am speaking about here just stopped caring at some point, or became burned out on life (some kind of global compassion fatigue?), or are simply narcissists, gazing into a pool and reflecting on their own wants, and desires, and own immeasurable greatness. They seek to trump whatever you are saying or experiencing, rather than meeting you where you are. Perhaps we could call this phenomenon Trumpism.

Kyle D. Killian, PhD is author of Interracial Couples, Intimacy & Therapy: Crossing Racial Borders from Columbia University Press.

References

Killian, K.D. (2012). Development and validation of the Emotional Self-Awareness Questionnaire (ESQ):  A measure of emotional intelligence.  Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 38(3), 502-514.

Killian, K.D.  (2008). Helping till it hurts: A multi-method study of burnout, compassion fatigue and resilience in clinicians working with trauma survivors. Traumatology, 14, 31-44.