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Why friends sometimes shun each other when they should be there instead

Posted Jun 23, 2014 |  Reviewed by Lybi Ma

You OK? You seem distracted,” asks Alice’s coworker.

“Yes, I’m OK”, Alice responds. “It’s just that my mother is in the hospital again, and I’m not sure she’s going to make it this time.” Alice’s voice cracks, and she reaches for a tissue to wipe her tears. When she looks up, she is surprised to find her coworker has vanished.

To make matters worse, her coworker avoids her for the rest of the day. He is even hostile when Alice asks for information she needs to complete a report.

Later that evening, her coworker sends her an email that simply says, “Sorry. Couldn’t take it.”

Most of us have had interactions like this that leave us scratching our heads. We can reverse the sexes in the above scenario or have both parties be the same sex. It doesn’t matter. It still surprises and chagrins us when people we consider friends—decent, kind people—seem to abandon us when we most need emotional support. They are clearly not sadists who delight in the suffering of others or psychopaths who are indifferent to it. So their behavior is perplexing.

This kind of interaction can lead to anger, judgment, and recriminations—the “you don’t care about me” outrage response. But here is the problem: Both parties feel their feelings have been trampled.

The Empathy Response Can Lead to Emotional Overwhelm

Consider what happens inside us when we view the suffering of others. When we experience physical pain or emotional distress ourselves, a neural circuit becomes activated (anterior cingulate cortex—or ACC–and insula). Research shows this same circuit gets activated when we see others suffer pain or emotional distress. So seeing the suffering of others causes us to suffer as well.

Although this response is crucial for social interaction, it is indeed unpleasant. If that circuit is hit too frequently (excessive sharing of others’ negative experiences), it can lead to emotional burnout.

And so people develop strategies for protecting themselves. Some do what Alice’s coworker did—put physical and emotional distance between themselves and the suffering person. Some stay present but emotionally dissociate, which the sufferer usually experiences as emotional abandonment.

Coping with the Emotional Overwhelm of Empathy

A crucial part of socialization is learning how to protect oneself from being overwhelmed by the suffering of others while still giving them the support they need and deserve.

Research suggests that the answer to this dilemma may be compassion training. Compassion is defined as a feeling of concern for the suffering of others (rather than experiencing distress in the face of the suffering of others.) Programs aimed at training compassion have been found to foster prosocial (helping) behavior while evoking a feeling of emotional well-being.

Recent research led by Max Planck scientist Olga Klimicki showed that compassion training actually affects which neural circuits are activated when viewing the suffering of others.

This was the basic design of the experiment:

NIH Pubmed/23576808
Source: NIH Pubmed/23576808

The affect group viewed three blocks of video clips that consisted of a high-emotion and a low-emotion video clip (10-18 seconds long). The clips were taken from newscasts or documentaries. The high-emotion video showed people suffering physical or emotional distress. The low-emotion videos showed everyday scenes that did not include suffering. fMRI brain scans were taken while the women viewed the videos. After each video, the women rated how much empathy, positive feelings and negative feeling they had experienced while seeing the video. They were told that “empathy” meant how much they shared the emotion of the persons in the video clip

Reprinted with Permission.

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