I love reading spirituality and self-help books. I am always looking for ways I can better understand myself and others through a lens of empathy and connection.
On a long drive, I was listening to Brené Brown’s latest book, Braving the Wilderness. It’s a well-articulated book about when integrity encourages us to stand alone rather than belong. I can relate to so any of her points, and a beautiful quote from my all-time favorite, Maya Angelou, ties it all together. I love Brown’s work, and I love that she is educating so many on the importance of empathy. As an empath, I already do so much of what she describes, but there’s always more to learn and be reminded of. It makes me feel like I have kindred spirits in the world knowing that so many others are learning and resonating with her work.
That said, something has been bothering me, and it struck me in the middle of her book. She was talking about the importance of leaning in to disagreements, asking more questions to understand other points of view, and really listening to others. And then she made a flyaway comment, one phrase in the middle of a sentence: “Unless they’re a psychopath…”
You see, that’s the thing. Unless they’re a psychopath, it all works. It is possible to connect. It is possible to listen and be listened to. It is possible that by modeling empathic behavior, the other person will open up and reciprocate. But if they’re a psychopath, it doesn’t work at all.
As someone who has endured abuse from the dark triad of narcissists, sociopaths, and psychopaths, I know that my empathy for them is not going to improve or fix any situation in which they are directly involved. In fact, they feed off empathy like Voldemort feeds off the blood of unicorns. They are the walking dead. The only solution I’ve found that works is to get as far away as possible, and to focus my energy on the living.
I hear a tiny Brené Brown on my shoulder reminding me that it gets us nowhere to dehumanize people. But what if they really are evil? What do we do with people who don’t have any empathy to return? What do you propose we do about those who incite physical and psychic violence, Brené??
I ache for those who have been in abusive situations with dark triad people and feel the pangs of guilt and shame when told maybe they should try harder or listen more. Anyone who has faced evil head on knows that no amount of empathy for their abuser will save them from abuse. I want to put an asterisk along with a footnote on the bottom of every page of every book that addresses conflict resolution, “Unless they’re a psychopath.”
Ironically, this is the thing that makes me feel disconnected and alone when taking in a book about connection and belonging. It reminds me that the conflict I’ve lived through is not “normal” conflict that can be resolved. If only it were so easy as to turn someone around with empathy, I could have succeeded. The thing is, I have a lot of empathy for my abusers. I know why they are the way they are. I have come to understand them and pity them. I have seen them and heard them. But having empathy for them doesn’t excuse them from the crimes they have committed. And I also know that they are pathologically incapable of ever seeing or hearing me.
Maybe Brené would like a collaborator on her next book.