It was a photo of a young woman standing in Moscow’s Red Square. The woman was an acquaintance with the writing, the photo was 30 years old. She had included it in her health and lifestyle-focused sub-pile last week, along with her expressions of concern for the people of Ukraine. Some distant ancestors, she had always believed, hailed from this part of the world, and her heart was there with them. His compassion was perhaps sincere. His self-centeredness certainly was.
The impulse to see ourselves in history is deeply human and understandable. We watch the spiers of Notre-Dame burn and sadly recall a life-changing trip to Paris. We hear of a celebrity dying of a seemingly minor head injury, and we remember a friend who was also lost too soon. Identification is an essential part of how we cultivate empathy in the world. Think of Barack Obama when he said, “When Trayvon Martin was first shot, I said that could have been my son.”
This is completely normal. Laurie Hollman, PhD, licensed clinical social worker, psychoanalyst, and expert in self-perception and narcissism, explains it this way: “People often think of the impact on ‘me’ before considering another person. It’s natural to identify with the circumstances of others and first assume that the other’s situation is similar to what you experienced. To some this may be seen as self-centered, but I don’t always believe that to be the case It’s just a starting point to start acclimatizing to something familiar before embarking on the experience of another.”
RELATED: My husband intentionally exposed my family to COVID-19
But much like a dead-eyed robot, there’s a moment when empathy cuts through the rubicon in Uncanny Valley, leaving us feeling uneasy instead of emotional. Think, this time, of Gal Godot and his famous friends crucifying “Imagine”; or more Recently, AnnaLynne McCord took to social media to poetically imagine herself as the foster mother who saved Vladimir Putin from himself.
As our TV critic Melanie McFarland recently recounted, the list of celebrities who have awkwardly inserted themselves into public tragedies is a classic exercise in second-hand embarrassment – with John Cena wishing he “could somehow or else summon the powers of a true #Peacemaker” while hashtaging his show, Andy Cohen spelling out “PEACE” in Wordle Tiles. It’s not that these famous people can’t or don’t feel heartfelt grief and outrage. It’s that they don’t do such a good job of expressing those feelings in a way that’s not about themselves.
Where human connection is minimized, one wants to seek approval and praise from others in the online world.
Yet it’s not just the ignorant rich who grope here. I’m thinking of this writer from Substack, who wrote an entire newsletter entry ostensibly about Ukraine, but mostly about herself and the time she went to Russia. I think of the neighbor whose fascination with the high-profile murder of a co-worker has become an uncomfortably common anecdote in social circles. And I think of how often and how easily the appearance of empathy can be weaponized — Well, I’ve been through something tough and I’m fine, why can’t you?
Social media, along with all the other forms of mass communication that we have perpetually at our fingertips, make it not only easy to express all the ideas that cross our minds, but almost obligatory. Your sober response to police violence or pandemics may be poorly received, but your silence may also be judged harshly. The pressure to respond somehowcan seem incessant and intense. And a well-crafted Facebook post or group text can give the illusion of actually doing something right.
“In this digital age, where human connection is minimized, one wants to seek approval and praise from others in the online world,” says Dr. Lea McMahon LPC, Licensed Counselor, Adjunct Professor of Psychology and Clinical Director at Symetria Recovery. “Even if the issue is not related to us or affecting our daily lives, we still want to talk about it through social media. People want to appear empathetic and caring online because it helps to strengthen them. their picture.”
Everyone loves a little dopamine hit of validation, just like we instinctively look for commonalities or discrepancies in the stories we seek. But for some people, everything can become their own personal story. In her 2011 memoir, Kris Jenner hinted that had she just been a more caring friend, she could have saved Nicole Brown Simpson’s life. “Nicole really wanted someone close to her to know what was going on,” she wrote, “so someone – namely me – could be a witness.” Donald Trump is a champion of the complex art form of the savior, evidenced recently by confident assertions about Ukraine that “As everyone understands, this horrible disaster would never have happened if our election hadn’t been rigged and if I was the president,” and that “The fake news said my personality was going to get us into a war… but in reality, it was my personality that kept us out of the war.”
As psychologist Dr. Elizabeth Lombardo notes, “A narcissist views themselves as the center of their universe. empathy. A lack of empathy makes it difficult for a person with NPD to understand another person’s point of view – it’s all about them.”
So how can we avoid both the overtly stubborn responses to tragedy and the more subtle pitfalls of Main Character Syndrome? Hollman says that when it comes to being truly helpful to those in need, “there’s nothing wrong with saying, ‘I want to help, but I’m not.’ works best for you. Would you like to tell me more about what happened or is happening?” the future after learning the direction the other person is leaning towards. What works best, to begin with, is to listen carefully to what’s on the other person’s mind. And when in doubt, she simply advises, “We need to think before we speak or act.” The person to whom the tragedy actually happens should be the center of attention. Thinking about yourself before speaking impulsively is in the best interest of the other person.
Learn more about narcissism: