Why pretend to care about others when we have professional therapists?

A friend criticized me for being unsympathetic regarding a concern of hers that I thought was irrational.  She believed that a friend ought to care simply because another human being is apprehensive, even if that apprehension is not justified.  During this exchange it occurred to me that there is actually no reason for the layperson to be sympathetic or empathetic in any modern situation.

Three hundred years ago everyone had to know how to make soap.  Today we can run down to the store and buy Ivory or Palmolive.

Three hundred years ago friends needed to empathize with one another.  Today anyone who wishes to get sympathy for his or her troubles can simply buy it from one of the hundreds of thousands of trained professionals in the therapy industry.

Friendship isn’t obsolete of course.  Psychotherapists aren’t very entertaining so we might still rely on friends for amusement.  But why bother pretending to care about another person’s troubles when there are so many psychotherapists out there who actually do care, truly, deeply, professionally?

68 thoughts on “Why pretend to care about others when we have professional therapists?

  1. Haha! Great question, indeed.
    I have to agree with Demetri on this one. Also, why couldn’t we enjoy amusement/entertainment on our own? I have heard of people watching a comedy by themselves, and having a good time in spite of that.

    For some reason, people need to feel connected to others. And have that connection recognised by IRL interaction. I don’t think there’s a single person that can enjoy life without that. No one wants to be alone…

  2. This reminds me of the comment in the “Crocodile Dundee” movie where Croc doesn’t understand the need for psychiatrists asking “Haven’t you got any friends” to talk too. My take on it is that there a people who are mentally ill who need proper care, in the same way as people who are physically ill who need doctors. Unfortunately modern society see’s the need to visit the doctor for the slightest little cold and seek psychiatric care in a similar manner. If we as a society can only turn to professionals we will cease to be a society. And unlike doctors good friends can tell you to stop being a prat and get on with things.

  3. My dad was a psychoanalyst and I grew up in the world of Freud. As proof of how warped that can make a child, I admit that sometimes in the privacy of our home I would voluntarily read one of the many volumes of the Collected Works of Sigmund Freud. But, the real proof of my misfortune is that I became a lawyer. But I digress.

    Shrinks are wonderful people; my dad cared deeply about his patients. Rarely did he fall asleep while they lay supine on the couch effusively recounting their every inner thought. Your question is a great one, but as the others have suggested, we can’t rent professionals for every therapeutic situation. Sometimes we just need someone to get us a band-aid and ask us about our “bobo.” Ideally, shrinks are there for people with major structural issues and who want to work on sculpting the perfect Hollywood psyche (oops, sarcasm slipping in). Oh, and one important thing I learned growing up around shrinks: they are just as dysfunctional as the rest of us; their skil is that they’ve learned how to hide it. And that’s really all any of us can hope to achieve.

  4. Be careful, your urban-centricism is showing again.

    Why should people care? The easiest answer is that not all people have access to a high-priced psychotherapist.

    Secondly, as part of the role of being a friend, you are expected to listen and care once in a while when other friends have problems. If I called you a friend, then tried to talk to you about a problem I had, and you told me to go get a shrink, I would start questioning whether there was a friendship to begin with. It’s not that you are obligated to care, it’s that you should want to care.

  5. Well, if you’ve ever wondered at what point you’ve been spending too much time in front of a computer instead of being with people, wonder no more.

  6. The short answer to your question would get edited out.

    Relation to other humans is what matters, and not the rest. Of course, for a nerd this may be hard to comprehend, and you may wonder what exactly it is you’re missing. What you’re missing is depth, meaning in life. And I don’t mean it in any religious way. When you ask such a question it’s obvious that you are one of the many, how can I call them… robots, running around, doing their small little jobs, putting all their effort into small pointless hobbies. From time to time they may wonder if there is nothing more to life than that, but after a while the senses get dulled and the wandering stops. They just get used to it.

    But don’t feel alone in this. Unfortunately I think a lot of people are in the same situation. They are the people you meet and forget three minutes later. The ones whom you “know” but never actually bother calling. Many software programmers can be like this. The programs they make are great, and it’s great that someone bothers making them, but really, do I _have_ to meet them?

  7. Ebenezer Scrooge, when faced with human suffering, said, “Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses? Let them go there!”

    Maybe it’s time to go see Christmas Carol again, before the Ghost of Christmas Future makes you feel compassion the hard way…

  8. Listening to a friend’s woes doesn’t mean solving them; that’s something only they can work on. Being a compassionate person and listening and relating is part of what makes us a human community. You desired to make great impacts on the world through creative programming, but in the end you make great impacts by being a compassionate caring person who depends on friends and returns the favor. This is similar to the strengths you have always had in giving your knowledge and software to the community.. In a sense we listen to you from Samantha to this blog and we all gain.. its the same way with your friend. Her apprehension may be irrational but by talking to you, she maybe gains by working it through.. just , listen, nod and offer hugs.. and if she wants advice.. just relate your experiences.. Remmeber, its the connection that counts..

  9. you know, I have a friend who frets over every little thing. I would receive 3 or more calls a day about the slights and assaults from a hostile universe, work environment, family, auto, romantic life without end if I wasn’t actually disinterested. So, I sympathize with Philip because I’ve often heard the guilt inducing spiel “that a friend should be sympathetic regardless of the problem”. I say that’s crap.

    we’re talking about adults after all. with kids I have often found it usually works best to point out that they are fine (after falling down, scraping the ground, getting cut etc) and give the “kiss it better” as needed. The “kiss it better” is a pure illusion. That being said, it ususally does make it better (especially, when I’m the one who needs the kiss!)

    I should point out that my general disinterest in every detail of “trauma” my friend goes through has had some positive effect. Our conversations tend to be more meaningful and don’t degenerate into a “woe is me” spiel until the conversation starts to wind down. At which time she often sees how she is acting.

    so, call irrational concerns what they are! it’s what makes a good friend.

    and don’t forget that professional therapists can be complete gits…. just like everyone else

  10. phillip, you have a distubingly calm,(some might say pharmaceutically calm) audience.

    I clicked the comment link expecting whole cartloads of pain being delivered to your front door.

    Angry grassroots empathists calling for your head while praying for your salvation, wiccan anarchists planning healing rituals, or at least little old ladies going “pshaw…”

    This is the internet, right? Where’s the irrationality and flamebaiting?<br/>
    Who let these people in?

  11. I agree with Phillip on this one, especially with regard to neurotic concerns of women. They shouldn’t be encouraged in their irrational beliefs. What exactly was her concern? That she was coming down with “chronic fatigue syndrome” or some other fake disease?

  12. The insults and the flamebaiting? I’m afraid you’ll have to wait until Phil posts bashing a programming language…

  13. Typical lawyer bullshit Phil. I can’t believe that I just read what I read. I’m done reading this blog. The last thing I need is more cynicism.


  14. I would err on the side of empathize, except when you really honestly can’t, depending on how unjustified the friend’s apprehension really is. Although, you may want to try to see it from their perspective. I mean, is it really that unjustified? If you still can’t empathize with their specific plight, at least for a friend who is misguided… we’ve all been there at one time or another. Perhaps you can attempt to show the friend in a caring way how their apprehension truly is unjustified, and help them get past it. “See a shrink, ya nut” might not be too well received by someone in the midst of a situation. Talking them through to the point of “Gee, what am I worried about after all,” might be more friendly. If all we do is entertain each other then we are indeed “fair weather friends.”

    Do people think you’re a lawyer because this is a ‘Hahvahd Blahg?’

  15. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV) states that lack of empathy is one of the diagnostic criteria for Narcissistic Personality Disorder. But you probably already know that as you have mentioned your narcissism in the past.

  16. In this scenario, who is truly lacking empathy? Perhaps your friend should have more empathy for you. Why can’t she understand and accept that you just don’t give a crap?

  17. Why have a significant other, for that matter, when one can simply pay for sex, professional sex?

    Must be the entertainment angle again. But why not simply pay for a comedian, or watch cable?

    This human contact stuff seems so inefficient.

  18. People need empathy like they need air, water, and sex. Why are you gratified when your friends visit for brunch or find you attractive, but annoyed when they ask you to empathize with their struggles? Are their requests that different from what you yourself need?

    After all, it’s easy to put a patina of reason onto a complaint about politics or software; but what stirs that (bountiful) urge to complain in you isn’t that different from what compels your friend to offer you her irrational feelings. We all need some kind of validation for the difficulties we face, but we can’t all characterize those difficulties in such precise, rational ways as a smart engineer can. When a friend responds to these needs with a reasoned reduction of our pleas into silliness, we feel rejected. This is the same kind of crushing rejection you might feel when, after confessing your undying love, the beloved explains clearly why on account of your family, profession, appearance, or education, the arrangement will never work.

    The bottom line is that nobody is immune to the need for love and empathy. Some of us are too afraid of exposing that need to others, so we become computer programmers. Then we can couch our needs within complex arguments, and if someone ignores us, we can just chalk it up to their own stupidity, ignorance, or misunderstanding.

  19. The more important question is why go out and experience anything? You have TV and movies don’t ya? Pay for your life experiences, only the best and EXACTLY how you want it!

    Err…or not.

    Lets be realistic here. We’re human, we want companions and part of being companions means 1.) Listening to our friends and partners bitch and moan and then 2.) Telling those partners either to grow up and shutup, or trying to help them with something.

    I do have to agree with some of the above posters, this has been WAY too timid of a response area!

  20. Wow, I thought Phil was showing off a great sense for irony here 😉

    Am I wrong or are you guys (writing the commentaries above) wrong?


  21. It’s an economics issue. The soap you buy at the store is better for probably less cost (I haven’t priced lye lately). The empathy you get from a therapist is worse and more expensive than that which you get from a friend. Therapists are trained in dealing with mental illness, not in providing empathy or sympathy.

    Nice try though.

  22. Chris Laux: Bingo! The original posting was an attempt to poke fun at our culture of therapy. The wicked thought that friendship was obsolete fit beautifully into the three-paragraph format that is ideal for a Weblog.

    If I actually believed that our industry of hundreds of thousands of professional psychologists et al. had supplanted the need for friendship I would sell my crumbling cramped 100-year-old apartment, which is within a 10-minute drive of most of my friends, and move to a brand-new McMansion in the exurbs, ideally in a central Florida airpark where you walk out of your kitchen into the hangar and fire up the airplane…

  23. Mental health professionals are so last century. Don’t you know we have meds for what ails ye?

  24. Frank Furedi has recently published a book called _Therapy Culture: Cultivating Vulnerability In An Uncertain Age_, where he explores how the kind of thinking Philip has satirized is actually destructive. I haven’t read it but there’s an interesting review at http://www.spiked-online.com/Articles/00000006DF70.htm :

    ‘The traditional conservative imagination has always presented a modest narrative about the human subject, in particular around the emphasis on deference, and people’s inferiority to God’, he explains. ‘The left historically had a more ambitious sense of the human potential. What changed over recent decades was that the conservative imagination stayed the same – and the left’s imagination adapted to the mood of demoralisation, coming up with a version of the human potential that was even more powerless than that of the right.’

  25. An important point is missing – who is responsible for the mental wellbeing/emotional needs of oneself?

    It is yourself, just like your physical wellbeing. So “a friend ought to care” is putting the responsiblity on the wrong side. This is the root cause of the discord.

    People are different in emotion and sensitivity, even one person can behave differently depending on the mood, time, and other things on his mind at the time. It is impossible and non-practical to expect others to behave what you like to see all the time.

    What one needs to do, both the sensitive and non sensitive types, is to depend on yourself – you need to take control.

    If you do need a friend to talk to, do not stop at the one that did not respond for whatever reasons. If your friends can not solve your problems, go for professional help. If you can not afford it … well, go find more friends that are willing to listen.

  26. If you care, you care. If you don’t, you don’t. You don’t get a choice in the matter (without pharmaceutical help).

    Pretending is just another form of lying. Bloody annoying, if you catch someone at it. And it wouldn’t be very professional for a therapist to do it either, that would be stepping over the line from therapy to prostitution.

  27. Being quite a rational person myself, I can sympathize with the “why should I care” bit.

    But I am going to let you in on a little secret, those professionals you speak about, assuming it is not Operah, don’t care about that concern itself, because, it is, well, irrational. What they care about is telling those people in a sympathetic way to stop being so irrational and don’t worry about it because it is not worth worrying about.

    So all they would get by spending their money is the same message you give them, be it with less cynisism. Though they are more eager to believe it because, well, these are professionals and they are paying them a lot of money.

    So next time put on your caring puppy face and tell them they really needn’t worry about it, instead of looking smug. Your friends will appreciate it.

  28. Who needs friends when you’re 110% secure in ***KNOWING*** you’re the smartest person in six contiguous states?

  29. It seems to me that both Philip and his friend have missed the mark on what it means to be a friend and caring about each other.

    Caring and supporting someone is not the same thing as blindly agreeing with every preceived problem. Sometimes being supportive means pointing out that the preception of a problem isn’t real.

    Similarily, friends are not there for our amusement. A friend isn’t some pet monkey you bring out to dance when you’re bored. Friendship requires some degree of mutual caring. Otherwise, it is just an acquaintance we like.

  30. Is this a little like asking why do people get married when there are professional sex workers (i.e. whores) available?

    Perhaps to the breezy logic of an MIT lecturer, it’s just simple economics–you can get more “therapy” by talking with a friend for a relatively low cost (cups of coffee, football games, &c.) compared with a professional therapist. After all, Philip, narcissism doesn’t respond well to conventional therapies anyway. Might as well talk it out with someone who doesn’t charge you $100 an hour. Then one can return to the practice of idolizing oneself.

  31. I can’t tell if this is a pre or post visit to a psychotherapist for greenie. it sounds like he got a good thrashing and went off to see a psychotherapist and this is his freudian mechanism of telling us about this experience of his. This is probably fine and good for the rich but most of the population probably can’t afford the 1-200 dollars an hour someone would charge.

  32. The reason that friends should be supportive of each other is that psychotherapists do more harm than good.  They prescribe drugs that are — at best — useless, and they engage in talk-therapies that often harm the patients.

  33. wow philip, this is a pretty controversial topic apparently 🙂 i commend you for having the guts to speak up and speak the truth.

    however, i do side w/ the softies that there is strong correlation between friendship and empathy. the psychotherapist is often not your friend and don’t offer empathy; they offer professional advice. the friend, on the other hand, gives genuine empathy because they care about you as a person.

    perhaps a better way to characterize your post is to question the need to show sympathy, rather than care. care applies to the person (i.e. your friend), but sympathy applies to a specific situation or opinion, which you may not always agree with. in this case, there is no need to pretend to “sympathize” but rather offer advice. if your view is more rational than hers, then it should add a lot of value.

  34. Might as well ask why we should bother having friends, now that you can just pay someone to build your house, drive down the street at midnight to get your cup of sugar, and solicit posts in your blog as a substitute for human contact.

  35. For the same reason you don’t go to prostitute every time you want to make love. On the other hand this is not a good comparison as lots of males might opt to do so.

    The fact that it was a woman who requested your emotional support is another indication of the differences in male/female emotional needs.

    Also, in this particular situation the conflict may be a result of her trying to suck you into her drama – something which is not an honest sharing but manipulation.

    As for shrinks replacing real friends — suit yourself. After all, both require time in different forms (as in money = time*value_of_contribution). In my case, I get a LOT from _listening_ to my real friends’ concerns and do not allow to be manipulated. And I insist for the same.

    A good shrink may be a very good solution but very expensive as if you take your state seriously, you might need to get real 3-4 times a week.

    But of course you can afford it.

  36. I’m a programmer because last week I learned how to make a Javascript coded menu. Phil is a programmer because he’s got a PhD from MIT in CS and is an expert on CLOS, TCL, and SQL. Alan Kay is a programmer because he designed Smalltalk. Alan, Phil, and I do the same thing, as all psychotherapists do the same thing.

    You can’t state whether psychotherapy is useful or harmful without defining the contract between the therapist and client. The complications of the medical model — which assumes that psychotherapists treat diseases rather than help people with the complications of living — interferes with that contract, and isn’t the fault of psychotherapists as much as it is an agreement between insurance companies and the AMA. Insurance companies limit their financial exposure while the MDs rake in the cash with their dubious treatments.

    I’m not attempting to defend the profession: the vast majority of psychotherapists are useless, a waste of time and money, and can be harmful — especially if they have a prescription pad. Most are poorly trained and not particularly intelligent. Nevertheless, (aside from the prescription pad) what profession haven’t I just described?

    Regarding Phil’s topic (a bit of irony I found hilarious), empathy is an extremely rare attribute, not found in psychotherapists any more often than in anyone else. Don’t mistake sympathy (feeling bad for someone’s misfortune) for empathy (understanding someone’s misfortune). If you know a genuinely empathetic person, whether therapist, friend, relative, or lover, you’re very lucky.

    Gary (formerly a psychotherapist, for over 20 years)

  37. I think many posting comments here have missed what the point is – I don;t think this is so much about Psychotherapists but more about wether you need to simply pander to your friends or be sympathetic…when “another human being is apprehensive, even if that apprehension is not justified”

    A lot of people these days are spoilt by all the good things we have in the world. Like the exmaple a few hundred years ago we all had to make soap – so we were more appreciative of it and actually had more care for such simple things. Little things like this would actually give us extra layers of strength that would help us deal with emotional issues. Also communities were tighter and we would share the more subtle things in our day to day life – as a matter of survival, which would help us bring the world into a perception that we could handle – even though it was probably harder. Today people will stress and fret over a cell phone not working, batteries going flat, car tyre problems etc etc – yet every day you will have food in your belly, a warm place to sleep and even Entertainment!

    I do believe pandering to others and being sympathetic to another … “another human being is apprehensive, even if that apprehension is not justified…” does not help the person. They need a wake up call for them to step back, look closely at themselves and appreciate the good they have in their life. Gratitude for the most simplest of things is important.

  38. The definitive answer to your rhetorical conjecture is, that what friends are for,
    the answer which you yourself definitely
    realize but pose it as some sort of cutesy sociological experiment as if “you” call your shrink whenever you’re disappointed or depressed when some love interest doesn’t return your calls.

    Your friend turned to you in a moment of weakness for some emotional emollient and YOU pour acid on her wounds.

    With friends like you who needs enemies?

  39. The definitive answer to your rhetorical conjecture is, that what friends are for,
    the answer which you yourself definitely
    realize but pose it as some sort of cutesy sociological experiment as if “you” call your shrink whenever you’re disappointed or depressed when some love interest doesn’t return your calls.

    Your friend turned to you in a moment of weakness for some emotional emollient and YOU pour acid on her wounds.

    With friends like you who needs enemies?

  40. The bottom line is that your comments should be taken to be made strictly in a philosphical context and not in the everyday,practical world where real people exist and interact with each other.

  41. If being empathetic would have attacked the cause of your friend’s irrational apprehension, then you were probably wrong in blowing off her concerns. But guessing that empathy wasn’t going to solve her problem, you made a good choice, saving her the time of having to whine helplessly about her troubles as well as saving yourself from having to listen to it.

    How great is that? Simply choosing not to act worked in favor of both of you.

  42. A friend of mine told me the other day that there are more shildren in recent years who need Occupational/Vocational Therpy because children today less and less play street and neighborhood games. They stay at home in front of a screens.

    Totally realted.

  43. My 3-year-old daughter asked the other day if soap came from the sea. Then she asked who makes soap. Turns out the bottle has a starfish on it.

    But now I want to know how to make soap.

  44. Philip, I think you need to go out and read Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus. It has a whole chapter devoted to exactly this. What it comes down to is that the way men and women handle problems and in particular discuss problems are completely different. And neither side knows it.

  45. Most comments after 12/2/03; 5:11:35 PM prove my theory that most people don’t read an entire comment thread.

  46. philip greenspun is mean.

    how is janet aka (daughter of former finance director of sierra leone gold and diamond corporation mr marcus aka, who was assasinated by the rebel forces loyal to mr forday sankoh during the peak of the civil war in her country sierra leone) going to get the urgent assistance she needs without a little empathy?

    animals… animals…

  47. I think if the friend is expressing concerns that may lead them to be suicidal, then you should care, or at least refer them to some highly effective chemicals.


  48. CALVIN, very good point.

    There are people who want to enroll you in their drama so that it’s more real for them so that they can go deeper in the pleasure of feeling bag for themselves.

    But sometimes someone needs to share deeply with another human being in order to make a step towards healing.

    The first type does not care about real understanding. They want you on their side, confirming the trauma. Or consolation.

    The second type – they need you to open your heart and tell them the truth as you see it, without judgement. This takes a lot of trust and I call it friendship.

    One catch is that the same person may come through as type I or type II. Another catch is that sometimes you have the ability to turn a type I situation into type II.

    Enjoy your choices.

  49. I thought this was a troll. Nice one, Phil.

    > If I actually believed that our industry of hundreds of thousands of professional psychologists et al. had supplanted the need for friendship I would sell my crumbling cramped 100-year-old apartment, which is within a 10-minute drive of most of my friends, and move to a brand-new McMansion in the exurbs, ideally in a central Florida airpark where you walk out of your kitchen into the hangar and fire up the airplane…

    Hey! I live about 100 miles from one of those. My best friend drools over a lot there. 🙂

    The corollary here, of course, is that the problem which needs to be fixed for some statistically significant percentage of people in therapy is …
    lack of friends.

    It’s my bucket theory of stress: everyone has a bucket full of stress. Your friends position their buckets underneath yours when you’re more stressed than they are, and drill a little hole to drain off some of the stress before your bucket overflows and gets all over the carpet.

    This can get a bit Escherian in practice, but…

  50. Nice irony, Philip, too bad so many of your readers are unable to appreciate it.

    Have a great trip!

  51. I think you’ve too easily blurred the lines between empathy, sympathy, (compassion), and therapy.

    Or perhaps it was the therapists themselves that blurred this line…

    Just remember this:
    Self-Esteem is for Losers!
    Forget the Lifestyle — get a Life!

  52. Ahh, Mr. Greenspun,

    Interesting post, as it suprised me, even though I have been reading your works for some time now. As for your topic, a dear friend of mine is one of those individuals, who, as you put it, “care[s], truly, deeply, professionally.” She is also one of those truly empathetic individuals that Mr. Bloom mentions above, and it is an honor to share friendship with her. One of the things I learned from her was the difference in how she listens to friends vs her clients, and that is the difference between listening intuitively and listening in a more academic manner. When she listens as a friend she gives away some of her strength, some of herself to help the other individual, in what amounts to taking a bit of that person’s burden. That is part of the sacrifice of a true friendship, based in mutual trust, respect, and love. That kind of sacrifice cannot be asked of a therapist, for they would get too burdend by the cares of their charges. Admittedly, some therapists do make that sacrifice in cases, and it does enact a toll on them.

    True care hurts, and that is why true friends are so valuable — they will hurt with you. You can’t buy that from a therapist, no matter how caring, because of the need for that distance they need to keep for their own sanity.

    My best to you, as always, Phil.


  53. Well Phil. You’ve spilled your guts all over the web when your dog died, obviously not without a reason. You’ve also mentioned how your friends were supportive at that moment. It seems you are ready to accept it when you are suffering but when it comes to other people it becomes a nuisance for you. If you were a men and consistent with your own views you should’ve kept it quiet and go cry to your therapist for a healthy fee.


  54. Why have sex when there’s a lot of hookers around?

    I’ll consider your comment an outlier to your usually intelligent ideas.

  55. Uh….may I suggest you need either to touch-smell a dead body….or watch a few desert sunrises. It’s obvious you know nothing of life.

  56. hmm…i dont know about all these people..
    but you make a very reasonable and interesting point. And this would be the answer to..why do we need doctors? to help those people who want to be self-sufficient… those who dont want to bother friends with their problems…. totally see ur point.

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