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Is It Possible to Have Selective Empathy?

by Dr. Marie Hartwell-Walker

From a young woman in the U.S.: I had a pretty traumatic upbringing, and dealt with a lot of narcissistic and antisocial personalities. I have literally seen what evil looks like. But I’ve also known some amazingly kind people and when I love someone, I think the world of them. I would never do anything to hurt them.

I’m extremely sensitive and have lots of empathy for good people. Bad people on the other hand, I harbor extremely evil feelings for. I will literally wish death on someone if I hate them and feel no remorse, I won’t even look at them as a human. But around good people, I’m a completely different person and would never in a million years have those thoughts about them!

But if I were to ever see someone bad from my past, I would lash out at them in a way that would frighten people! I’m literally afraid to be around a bad person for fear of my reaction to them. I don’t want to get in trouble and I feel really guilty for exposing innocent people to that monsterous side of me. I don’t want to scare them or make them think differently of me. I almost have to strategically limit my social interactions with only certain people who I view as being good and harmless. My question is, is it possible to only have select empathy and genuine love for certain people, while completely demonizing others? Thanks in advance

Not only is it possible, it’s probably more common than you know. People who have a traumatic history often categorize people as either “good” or “bad”. Early experience has taught them to be on guard for “bad” people and to be overly reliant on “good” ones. The problem with that childhood conclusion is that people don’t generally fit neatly into one category or the other. Some very bad people do good things or have good parts. Some very good people disappoint others by doing “bad” or clumsy things.

Black and white thinking about others can lead to unstable relationships. People deemed as “good” are put on a pedestal. But if they disappoint in any way, they are immediately pushed into the “bad” column.

One of the most difficult challenges for adults who have had a traumatic childhood is to start thinking about others in more complex ways. Really good friends can inadvertently hurt us. People we don’t like very much can surprise us by doing something helpful. The challenge is in learning skills to make good judgments about others while still allowing for their humanity. Since people come from all points of the spectrum from good to bad, it’s essential to have those skills in order to make solid relationships and to do well at work and in the social world.

Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) has been shown to be very helpful for learning those skills. Although originally developed for people with borderline personality disorder, it is also often used to help people with a trauma history. I urge you to look for a therapist who is trained in DBT to help you be less extreme in your thinking about others and, even more important, to help you be all you can be in a world where people are often unpredictable.

I wish you well,

Dr. Marie

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