In 2022, many people describe themselves as deeply feeling “empaths” and yet we live in a time where understanding others beyond our own prerogative has become increasingly difficult. We often aspire to a perfectionist level of idealistic lyricism while quickly detaching ourselves from people that do not match us nor willingly center our self-view. How is it that in an era when so many promote alleged “empathy”, our relational, personal, and collective progress are continually stifled?
The answer could lie with capitalism, socio-political advantages, and finally, hyper-individualism which, by academia.edu, is defined as “A tendency for people to act in a highly individual way without regard for others”. It is a sociological phenomenon that is hugely driven by and prevalent in societies that are majority capitalist.
Firstly, hyper-individualism has a tremendous affect on how we conduct our relationships. At every turn, we are bombarded with social media posts and conversations about who others feel is “toxic”. Quite easily, hyper-individualism can fully invalidate those we used to feel connected to. We are continually asked to update our mental software on whose songs are socially acceptable to listen to because of all the celebrities that are facing “cancellation” on a weekly basis and continually assessing the quality and success of our relationships through the lens of our individual needs.
Narcissist, empath, and toxic have all been popularized as convenient nicknames, even though most times we lack any formal clinical diagnosis. Labels of ourselves and others get circulated quicker than it takes to get accustomed to a person and always at the behest of our personal wants, needs, and expectations that have been superimposed onto everyone in our vicinity: from our favorite celebrities to who we take as friends or lovers.
How many of the alleged conflicts we have with others are based on a zeitgeist that encourages masses of people to ignore the complex psychology of human beings? How much of someone’s toxicity exists in our stories to ourselves and our friends because someone simply didn’t match our “vibe”?
“Toxic narcissist” is used just as generously as “empath”, and yet everything down to our social media algorithm is curated to suit our individual perspective, whether you’re a spiritual healer or radically conservative.
It is no wonder that few of us can survive changes in our relational dynamics–because the world beyond our feed does not curate life to suit our algorithms. We cannot algorithmize the inner lives of those around us to fit our individual profile, try as we might.
Human beings are always in flux—and relationships go through changes. The summation of individual psychology cannot simply be left up to an Instagram post or what we feel strongly from an impression. More importantly, our relational intention is always a critical factor that is worthy of introspection (in our relationships and with regard to our social contract).
Acknowledging this forces each of us individually to reevaluate our expectations for others and exercise some level of responsibility for our personal thoughts and feelings, as well as how we navigate them without projecting them onto others as their fault and responsibility.
This reflective process that Brene Brown calls “reckoning” exists beyond the realm of how we want others to perceive us because how we want to be thought of and who we actually are, are seldom ever the same thing. Nevertheless, both have a lot to do with what we expect of others in the world.
The more we center our own stories, the more we stand to lose in our relationships. The less we extend beyond our field of view, the less progress we make in the world around us.
When we examine the pervasiveness of hyper-individualism in capitalist societies and shy away from a relational approach to our choices, many behaviors that are counter-productive to our collective identities become normalized until we move the overton window to an extreme–and only then does it hit us, what we could’ve done.
As one example that illustrates the extremity of hyper-individualism in an article posted on Psychology Today, psychologist Dennis M. Clausen writes that many Americans in recent years have begun to ignore traffic laws, which has resulted in many fatal accidents. The article posits that the uptick in traffic violations resulting in accidents could very well be attributed to an increase in hyper-individualism. The article also stresses how easily violence can ensue from trivial disagreements or minor inconveniences in every day scenarios as a result of the world becoming increasingly more and more hyper-individualistic.
Certainly the capacity for empathy does not make someone an empathetic individual in every scenario. In fact, how we empathize psychologically has a lot to do with who we relate to, who is in our proximity, and whose needs we want to prioritize (often our own). According to Bryan Stevensen, founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, empathy has everything to do with our proximity to suffering individuals. The closer we get, the more we care. However, as long as we remain out of proximity, nothing changes.
There-in lies a huge crack in our ethical coding with which hyper-individualism can hijack our capacity to create relational understanding and social progress. Popular comedians like Bo Burnham pointed out in his comedy special, Inside, that many people unknowingly undermine progressive movements by viewing any initiative through the lens of individual self-actualization rather than wanting to genuinely explore the experiences of others–a brilliant insight.
This can explain why so many seldom feel enough of an incentive to participate in social initiatives that are easily accessible to us let alone speak up for others, in spite of voicing outrage toward many systems of injustice.
Films like Don’t Look Up, an allegory on the global response to COVID and Climate Change, call attention to the disintegration of collective thought even in pressing times. The inability of individuals to look beyond their own self-interest and their own reality is a roadblock that affects many people worldwide from an interpersonal level in their relational capacity to others, to the grass-roots level when it comes to collective participation in the social fabric of the world, to the legislative level that affects what others can and cannot do.
Bryan Stevenson posits that “if you are willing to get closer to people who are suffering, you will find the power to change the world.” To put it plainly, if there were as many “empaths” in the world as the empathy trend suggests, perhaps we’d be grappling with a different world altogether.
Maybe we’d have more fulfilling relationships, build better friendships, strengthen our communication skills and make a greater effort to understand the impact of our choices on those around us. Maybe there would be less toxic narcissists and more flawed human beings.
Midnight Gospel cleverly hinted at the relevance of relational collectivism in the episode, The Annihilation of Joy. In this comically somber analogy, Jason Louv speaks on the illusion of hope as well as self-awareness in life. The allegory of the Existential Trap of the Soul Prison portrays Clancy, voiced by comedian Duncan Trussell, and Jason Louv (taking the form of a “soul” bird) as observers of Bob, an inmate in a prison for “simulated beings” suffering from existential dread.
While Louv and Clancy speculate on the torment of hope, Bob continually attempts to free himself by sabotaging other inmates and guards. Each time, he repeatedly dies and is reborn, eventually able to see other prisoners as a reflection of himself.
Bob’s song, “Used To Be Freedom To Me” (sung by Johanna Warren) shows him as a collective entity in a network of other existential “souls” and it lyrically suggests that our willingness to villainize others for our own existential gain is actually undermining our individual selves in our own learning and overcoming.
Perhaps the key to conquering hyper-individualism begins with changing our proximity to others, adjusting to a collective approach that focalizes synergy in our relational and sociopolitical conflicts without holding our individual point of view at the center, and ironically, learning how to see ourselves reflected in others. Perhaps it comes with focusing on our relational intention and predicating our willingness to change, to grow, and to progress on actionable steps and behaviors with which our altruistic and empathic self-view can actually stand on without slipping through the cracks of our pride or self interest.
Perhaps the success of our relational capacity with others and the attainment of the “more equitable world” that each of us claims to want, is embedded in just how far we’re willing to venture outside of our own prerogatives to understand the world of others.