Empathy for the Non-Empathetic

So here’s the story: I have been renting a lovely house in a suburb of Minneapolis for the past four years. I love it. I am surrounded by trees, it’s on a small river, it’s cute and cozy and tucked away. And I have one of the world’s worst landlords. Every time I need to deal with him, I have to gird my loins for battle. When the washing machine broke, for example, he just said “sorry, I’m done putting money into that house. If you want a new washing machine, buy one.” I had to both cite the lease to him AND threaten to move to get any action at all. And that’s just one example of many times simple things have become unexpected and ridiculous conflicts. It’s exhausting.  At one point, I noticed that, against my principles, I was saying things like “I hate my landlord.”

Now, it’s honestly true that I try not to hate anyone, but this guy–sheesh! So it got me pondering, why is it easy to have empathy and compassion for people when they are sad or afraid, and so hard when they are rigid, inflexible, or angry? Ok, ok, you’re probably thinking why should I have empathy or compassion for him? He’s not honoring his end of the deal! Well, here’s why. I truly believe most people don’t really want to be jerks. They just get caught up in patterns and fears and beliefs that have them act in jerky ways. Therefore, compassion is my goal, always, with everyone.

Which sometimes is easy, and sometimes is hard. And I think this has to do with the brain. You see, there are some things that hang out together. In the right hemisphere, it’s most emotions and our mirror neurons for empathy. The right hemisphere gets activated in sadness, depression, fear, grief, and emotions like that. It’s all about feeling lost, afraid and small. Which we tend to have some degree of compassion for. And we can relate to others’ feelings through our capacity to sense and feel their emotions ourselves through the power of mirror neurons.

The left hemisphere, on the other hand, gets one emotion, anger, no mirror neurons for empathy, and a tendency towards rigidity, superiority and being right. People who are more left-dominant (and yes, I know brain dominance is controversial, but just give me this one for now, ok?),  tend to want to control everything and be emotionally one-note. Everything makes them mad. And along with that, they just aren’t as in touch with their mirror neurons for empathy (since those are in the right hemisphere), so how other people feel — or even that they feel can be mysterious and not particularly personally relevant. In some cases, such as Asperger’s Syndrome and some other forms of autism, it may even be that the mirror neurons for empathy aren’t there at all.

And here is where it potentially gets even more interesting. Take someone who is touch with their right hemisphere mirror neurons for empathy (we’ll call them RH), interacting with someone who is not (we’ll call them LH). RH says or does something that LH doesn’t like, and so LH respond with their one emotion, anger. RH — because of their mirror neurons — feels this anger intensely and it activates RH’s own left hemisphere and makes RH angry too. But even though RH is feeling what LH is feeling, RH has now lost their own compassion and empathy because they’ve gone over to the left hemisphere themselves.

And thus, it is harder to have compassion for anger, control and rigidity than it is for sadness, fear, and a sense of overwhelm, because empathy doesn’t live in the same room as anger (etc.), and when you go there, it stays behind. Thus, even those of us who truly desire to love everyone can get hooked.

So what does it take to have empathy for the non-empathetic? You have to stop, breathe and go back to the other room. Let go of the anger, know it is not actually personal, and find a way to understand this person.

In my case, I had an “aha,” helped by my brother, an IT professional who has seen a lot of LHs in the IT world (my landlord is a software engineer). He has noticed both that the rational, non-emotional, logical world of computers attracts them, and also can reinforce and make left hemisphere tendencies worse, because the positive aspects get rewarded and the negative ones ignored. I realized that this is the profile of my landlord, so of course he is difficult to deal with when the issue is seeing things from my perspective. He doesn’t care how I feel, and it’s not personal. It’s just who he is, and it’s certainly not doing him any favors in life.

And thus, rather than spending my energy on hating him, I found compassion. I’m also moving, because I prefer to deal with people who are more aware, and more connected to both hemispheres of their brain. My new landlord? He turned down renters with cash in hand because he didn’t think they were a good fit for the other tenant, rented to me sight unseen based on his intuition (I was in California teaching) and sent a thank-you note with the copy of my lease.

I love the guy.

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9 responses

  1. Your analysis is really interesting and helps us understand – and, hopefully, have compassion for – difficult, rigid people. And I also like your decision to move – isn’t life easier when we surround ourselves with people who are kind and who are willing to understand our needs and points of view? It’s helpful to regularly take a look at our life and ask ourselves where we’re making things hard for ourselves, such as putting up with a difficult landlord, and see if we can lighten our load by changing that part of our life. Hope your new place brings the same joy that your last, cute and cozy place did – without, of course, the difficult landlord!

  2. I enjoy what you have to share, each time I have read your posts, I personally relate to the content. I look forward to hearing more. Thank you Ann.

  3. Hello, I would like to get information on your upcoming webinar series. Thank you. Jody Jody Burr, CPCC

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  4. I like that story Ann – good on you for getting your rooms sorted…and deciding in the end it was best to move out. No doubt our brain patterns and preferences determine the company we keep – tribal brains!

  5. Great article! I only wish I could trade-in my son’s dad (a geologist) for a more rh connected soul. The true challenge is when you are stuck with the person and have to work at constantly letting go of the anger, but still staying in battle with a bully. Talk about character building!

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