It might sound strange, but self-empathy could facilitate psychopathic tendencies. Maybe not necessarily serial killer tendencies, but tendencies like rule-breaking and decreased guilt that allows for misbehavior. When one has empathy for themselves, they may look at their misbehaviors through a lens that suggests their behavior is a consequence of their circumstances. This is what we tend to do when we have empathy for other people. This adds justification to one’s behavior which can potentially be problematic when trying to correct ones behavior. It is essentially self-enabling.
An individual I know has chronic issues with self-control. She identifies as a person with low self-control. While talking with her, she reported that she missed an important meeting. This is something she would explain as a product of her low self-control. This means that she can reduce the amount of guilt she has for missing this meeting because the missed meeting is a consequence of her psychological nature (low self-control), potentially something she is helpless to.
This reduced sense of guilt comes from being less hard on herself because she can understand and empathize with the situation she finds herself in. This reduced guilt essentially means that she will not punish herself for this mistake, at least not as much as if she believed she is a very bad person for this mistake. In this way, self-empathy might diminish the way we punish ourselves for consequences. This is useful for coping with our own mistakes, but this coping reduces the learning effects that punishment and dysphoria would have otherwise had.
We learn to avoid dysphoria. This learned avoidance can mean behaving differently to avoid the dysphoria, such as making sure you make it to the important meetings, or it can mean learning how to reduce the dysphoria through psychological coping, such as with self-empathy. In both cases, a behavior or reaction is learned but one behavior seems more adaptive, particularly in the case of preventing oneself from misbehaving. Enabling ones’ misbehavior seems unfair to other people as we externalize negative consequences to the outside world.
In the case of psychopathy, one might use self-empathy to create justification for much more heinous acts than just missing an important meeting. I even wonder if self-empathy strategies could be a gateway to totally psychopathic tendencies, as one learns how to diminish any sense of guilt for the negative consequences they unleash onto others. Such tendencies of self-empathy might start small but expand as the individual realizes the potential for a guilt-free existence. This would present a mechanism for becoming psychopathic or guilt-free that isn’t contingent on a reduced capacity to feel guilt on a biological or genetic level.
In a strange way, this dichotomy between self-empathy versus self-accountability is almost like the dichotomy that I perceive to exist with psychiatry and the justice system. With psychiatry, the focus is often on self-empathy while the prison system is about using fear and punishment as a deterrent to misbehavior. I am often wondering if we could just send criminals into psychiatry/therapy and attempt to rehabilitate them, rather than sending them to prison. After considering the points I’ve outlined in this post, I’m not so sure anymore.
An ultimate expression of self-empathy might be the victim mentality. When one is a victim, revenge is reciprocal and fair. Those with psychopathy are often thought to carry out urges to revenge at a greater rate. Consider the narrative of the bullied kid who ends up shooting up a school. Most interestingly, signaling virtuous victimhood is associated with psychopathy, along with Machiavellianism and narcissism. Virtuous victimhood signaling is combination of signaling one’s virtuousness and also one’s victimhood. In a sense, signaling virtuous victimhood could either imply that one is manipulatively taking advantage of the power that such signaling has or it can mean that extreme self-empathy has led a person to feel justified in their victimhood and thus justified or even morally superior in their response. It would be an interesting thing if the dark triad traits like psychopathy, Machiavellianism, and narcissism were byproducts of corrupt self-empathy and the beliefs that manifest from it.
The core issue is whether or not we can determine if we are actually helpless to the situation or not. In the case that we are helpless and have no control, having self-empathy is important. In the case we do have control, self-empathy might be corrupt. This essentially means that we must correctly analyze our circumstances in order to decide whether self-empathy is appropriate or not. If we are naïve or uninformed, we might conclude that we are helpless, and actually, worryingly, this helplessness could be justified by the fact that we are naïve or uninformed. Which starts to seem like psychopathy could be justified in a strange way, at least in certain cases. I’d wonder if spreading knowledge about this and training people to assess their degree of helplessness correctly could be important.
Lastly, this is only one angle of self-empathy. Keep in mind that self-empathy is not inherently good or bad. The point of this post is not to suggest that we blame ourselves for everything that happens. Another important note is that those who lack empathy at all are also not inherently evil. One can be prosocial and have a diminished sense of empathy.
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