Written by Lynn E. O’Connor Ph.D.
I’m in Telluride Colorado, where I attended stellar scientific meetings, held by The Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, Stanford U., while the nation has been watching the massacre in Aurora, Colorado and its aftermath. The take home message of the meetings is that we are wired for empathy, compassion and altruism, and this operates at both conscious and unconscious levels. In infants, it was described as “empathic contagion” and as children grow into toddlers and older, it takes on an additional cognitive component, and at this point, to some extent, we often know what we are feeling and why. From our own research on empathy and altruism, as well as from clinical experience, we know that some aspects of empathy and altruism remain unconscious, even as adults. One common problem I see in patients is empathy and altruism on overdrive, or the tendency to take unrealistic responsibility for another’s suffering, and this kind of empathy and altruism involves empathy-based guilt and is largely outside of conscious awareness.
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