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Empathy and Its Failures

There is healing power in understanding alone.

Key points

  • Self psychology is a branch of psychoanalysis that treats disorders of the self.
  • “Self” means a whole and integrated, stable yet dynamic experience of individuality.
  • We are all vulnerable to narcissistic fluctuations and the dysregulation of self-esteem.
  • Empathy from a caregiver in childhood provides the foundation of healthy narcissism. This is also basic to the therapist's role.
Source: David Gordon Whittaker/CCommons
Self-portrait by David Gordon Whittaker, with color-aid paper and old magazines
Source: David Gordon Whittaker/CCommons

Self psychology, pioneered by Heinz Kohut in the 1970s, is a school of psychoanalysis that treats disorders of the self. How does a self collapse, fragment, fall to pieces and recover? What helps restore a person’s self-esteem? These are all issues of narcissism.

Kohut gave us an enriched understanding of narcissism by freeing it from derogatory connotations. Needs that were first thought to signal a narcissistic personality disorder were newly understood to be central needs for all humans.

Kohut believed all people suffer from self-disorders of varying degrees. We are all vulnerable to narcissistic fluctuations and the dysregulation of self-esteem. A reasonably high self-regard is an important ingredient of mental health, whereas feelings of worthlessness or futility are common in depression.


Central to self psychology is the concept of empathy, from the Greek empatheia (em- ‘in’ + pathos ‘feeling’). This is the ability to feel what another is feeling: to be infused by another's thoughts, emotions, and perceptions. As a mode of observation, empathy tries to understand another individual from within his or her subjectivity. How does that person make meaning based on their historical experience?

After Kohut, empathy became a sustaining and essential force in illuminating both conscious and unconscious aspects of the mind. For example, the experience of a personal attack on a person or an assault on another made by that person is understood from within that individual's subjective experience: from looking at what anxieties were aroused, the interpersonal context in which the aggression was induced, and the (often historical) injury, frustration or deprivation to which it is reactive. This kind of reflection does not excuse the attack but makes it understandable from within that person’s historical frame of reference.

“The empathetic understanding of the experiences of other human beings is as basic an endowment of man as is vision, hearing, touch, taste, and smell,” Kohut claimed. He believed it is the job of the psychoanalyst to “address the obstacles that stand in the way of empathetic comprehension” (Search for the Self, 13)

Often empathy must engage an understanding of another person’s fear and why he or she feels the need to protect the self. This is essential to exploring the complexities of another person’s inner world and the wide spectrum of human feelings, from all-consuming love to murderous hate.

Empathy helps restore self-esteem and emotional equilibrium in another who is dysregulated. When faced with a painful experience, it is soothing to know one is not alone. Empathy creates an experience-near form of observation structured through a relationship of acceptance. There is a healing power in the understanding alone.

A therapist must be open to a full absorption in the inner state of another without losing the capacity to return to a cool, detached reflection on the experience. Receiving empathy from another helps facilitate the observing aspects of the mind that can be accessed in moments of calm.

Empathy is the midwife of healthy narcissism. Kohut's major contribution to psychoanalysis was the importance of empathy and his method of using it. A vital sense of self is developed in relation to the empathic support of caregivers or significant figures in early life. The child, as the recipient, takes in the experience and qualities that solidify the self.

Kohut noted that empathy is not always used for moral purposes but can be put toward malignant aims. When the Nazis attached whistles to bombs during their air raids in World War II, it was through the use of empathy by imagining how it would increase the panic and disorientation of people on the ground.

Failures of Empathy

The absence of empathy in early caregivers leads to a fragile, divided, or incoherent sense of self. This is a narcissistic imbalance in the personality.

A caregiver’s lack of responsiveness to the child’s emotional needs can take various forms: a parent is absent or apathetic. Or, to the other extreme: a parent can take over the child’s experience, seizing it as their own through a devouring over-identification. A caregiver can be dismissive, critical, or disapproving. These are all failures of empathy that result in splitting or in divisions of the child's self.

How does this work in terms of dynamic energy? When a parent chronically fails to provide an empathic response to a child’s emotional experience, the child then distances him or herself from the experience, too, and its associated emotions believing it to be disdained or unworthy. Instead of accepting and integrating the experience, the child disavows it or unconsciously projects it outward as an unwanted part of the self. Splitting is an alienation of self rather than its consolidation.

Finally, Kohut believed the scientific use of empathy was a way to stem man’s destructiveness. Destructive human acts are a response to the failure of empathy and the resulting narcissistic injury, which often leads to uncontrollable rage.


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Ornstein, P. H. (Ed.). (1990). The Search For the Self: Selected Writings of Heinz Kohut: 1978-1981, Vol 3. International Universities Press.