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The Hidden Danger of Empathy Culture

Performative or “scripted” empathy can have the opposite of its intended effect.

Key points

  • Empathy is often seen as the primary skill to build closeness in relationships.
  • Empathy "scripts" can flatten someone's experience of suffering and emotions.
  • Accepting the limits of empathy and our ability to understand an other is important in relationships.

One of the big things that we usually try to encourage in therapy, especially with couples, is empathy. Most people agree that they want people to feel empathy for them, their struggles, and their feelings. Most would also agree that they want to work on empathy to achieve better relationships—to attune better to their partner, to feel more, to connect and understand better.

But is this focus on empathy as a ground zero for ethical and close relationships misguided? Can it produce more distance and less understanding of others? Can working to “be empathic” do damage to closeness?

In a new book, The Other Side of Empathy, author Jade E. Davis argues that we should be skeptical of the recent cultural focus on empathy and its accompanying strategies and methods. One of her main arguments is that empathy often presumes that we can truly know another person, and in particular, the specifics of their suffering.

This can “flatten” suffering by presuming to know how the other is truly feeling. Think of Bill Clinton’s “I feel your pain.” In worst cases, this can become patronizing, paternalistic, and even dismissive as it turns the other’s pain into something of your own (the listener). It can make it more about you, the listener, than those who are listened to, by relating their experience to something that has happened to you.

Davis continues that this is made worse by a culture that contains “empathy scripts” and expected “performances” of both suffering and empathic response. This can again flatten suffering because it can often presume to know what a suffering person looks like and how they should act and confess.

As she argues, however, many people who experience feelings or suffering do not act in conventional ways. An example could be the experience of relief or contentment after the death of a loved one. To someone wishing to practice empathy with a grieving friend, they might overlook or dismiss this positive feeling and try to reflect to them a presumed feeling of pain and grief.

An underlying assumption of “empathy culture,” Davis argues, is that it creates unrealistic expectations and norms around interpersonal and wider social relationships. Equipped with psycho-educational tools and language like "active listening," "empathic reflection," and "open questioning," we feel that we can and ought to be able to successfully understand someone else. With all of these tools and general knowledge about neurotransmitters and neuro-plasticity, how can we not close the gap between you and a partner, friend, or family member?

The danger of thinking that we can actually understand another human being means that if we cannot close the gap and become more connected means that there must be something wrong with the other person. This, for Davis, means the risk of rejecting or abjecting the other. If we believe that all we have to do is follow certain empathy scripts and we still don’t feel connected or close, then there must be something broken or stubborn in the other person.

We can often see the negative consequences of empathy scripts in couple’s therapy. Sometimes, when one partner in a couple expresses difficult and complicated emotions, the other partner will try to reach them and support them through what they understand as an empathic response. They may reach out a hand and say lovingly, “I understand how you feel.” Many times, however, this doesn’t produce a satisfying response because the suffering partner intuitively or emotionally doesn’t feel heard.

The empathic response can short-circuit the suffering partner’s clarity of experience by turning it into something too easily understood. They might think or say out loud: “How could you possibly understand what I’m feeling since you haven’t lived and experienced life in the exact way that I have experienced it?” This can be felt as a kind of dismissal of the singularity of the persons’ feelings and suffering, and ultimately, a feeling of non-recognition, which can unfortunately undo what may be real good-will on the partner of the listening spouse.

Curiosity in Lieu of Empathy

In a clinical environment, we often discuss curiosity as an alternative to empathy, especially when it appears that empathy falls short of creating a connection or repairing a relational fault line. To be curious means to admit and acknowledge that you do not and may not ever fully understand what your partner is experiencing or has experienced. It means to sit beside someone who is communicating and not be able to bridge the gap, to remain together but apart. It means to ask questions without ever expecting to fully understand the answer. It also means asking questions that your partner may not or may never be able to answer with full satisfaction. It means, ultimately, accepting an unbridgeable chasm between people that cannot be papered over by empathy, however earnest and well-intentioned.


Jade E. Davis. The Other Side of Empathy. Durham: Duke UP, 2023.

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