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A Link Between Empathy and Depression

Why depression may prevent the expression of empathy.

A couple of years ago, I was at the store with my then infant son. A man approached us and said to me, "Good job dad, that's a happy baby you've got there." I thanked him for his compliment, and it was after I had successfully conquered the car seat yet again, that I had a realization. "What if my son had been having a bad day? Would I look like a bad father?

Thinking further, it led me to wonder if some new parents are preoccupied with making sure their children are supposed to be happy all the time and seldom sad, if at all. Which brings me to what depression is all about — a cognitive dissonance, highlighted by a denial of one's own feelings, negative or positive.

Most clients I encounter who struggle with depressive symptoms, usually will share with me their feelings of feeling dead inside themselves. Depression is never a sudden onset, but rather a process that begins with a denying or refusing to acknowledge painful and difficult feelings. This is usually triggered by a significant trauma or reoccurring trauma. A consistency in denying painful and difficult feelings will lead to a significant difficulty in being able to identify pleasant and positive feelings.

All feelings exist upon the same continuum as their polar opposites. One good way to visualize a continuum would be to think of a ruler, with two fundamental feeling words; sadness and happiness, inscribed throughout one of its sides. So if you have sadness at one end of the ruler and happiness on the other end, what exists in the middle are degrees of sadness and happiness, with the ratio of sadness being more than happiness on one half of the continuum and the reverse being the case on the other half.

In the process of a person becoming more depressed, as he gets good at being able to deny his negative feelings, he consequently becomes good at denying the positive opposites of his negative feelings, hence a significant difficulty in being cognizant of any feelings, except the feelings of being dead inside oneself. So an infant or toddler having a bad day in public isn't indicative of bad parenting, it simply means that the child hasn't yet mastered how to cope with difficult feelings.

So what's the connection between empathy and depression? Being empathetic towards others is a matter of mentally placing yourself in the position of another person and imagining what your feelings in the position of that other person would be. A person who has gone a number of years not allowing himself to experience his feelings cannot adequately practice the concept of empathy even though he may have an intellectual understanding of what empathy is, and what it takes to be empathetic.

One key guideline for parents to use in helping their children and teenagers stay consistently in touch with their feelings is modeling how to cope with disappointment. Parents should be cognizant of not creating an atmosphere of love in the household based solely on any kind of achievement or expectations, but instead be cognizant of their consistently modeling unconditional acceptance of self and others. This is a paradoxical approach that pays off in the long run, as youths who are more adept at dealing with disappointment, are more likely to be happier, and achieve success in their endeavors. Furthermore, these youths are also more likely to be empathetic towards others, as they will find it easier to identify and relate with difficult feelings they perceive others experiencing.

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