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The Danger of Empathy: The Belief We Know What Others Are Feeling

Should we give up on empathy?

Key points

  • It is not possible to genuinely feel what another person is feeling.
  • Assuming we know what another person is thinking and feeling can inhibit genuine understanding.
  • Curiosity, compassion, ignorance, and humility are much more useful attitudes to adopt when help is provided to someone else.

With a title like the one I have chosen, I’m a little surprised that you’ve read even this much of the post. I’m surprised but also delighted. To many people, it will seem preposterous to suggest that there’s even a hint of a problem with empathy. In fact, all around us we are exhorted to be more, not less, empathic.

The general idea of empathy is about understanding the perspective and experience of another person. Having a sense of what they’re thinking or feeling about a certain event or circumstance or how it is for them to have gone through some occasion or another. Apparently, it is beneficial in all sorts of ways to not only be empathic but also to let other people know how empathic you are. More empathy is supposed to be better than less empathy.

There is no doubt that, when some people are struggling or in turmoil, it can be comforting for them to know that they are not alone and that other people have lived through similar troubles. From a helping point of view, however, once we think we know how another person is feeling, the next step is to assume we also know how they can turn things around. Actually, it makes some logical sense that if you’ve been through something and successfully navigated your way through it, then when you’re talking to another person who is going through the same thing, you would be in an ideal position to guide them through their storm.

The trouble is, no two people ever have the same experience. Experiences are always different. Sometimes the differences are subtle and sometimes they’re vast, but they’re always different. This idea is, in fact, quite ancient. It was Heraclitus who is credited with introducing the notion that you never step into the same stream twice.

 rchphoto/123RF
Source: rchphoto/123RF

We live our lives in environments that constantly change. The variability is often unpredictable yet we are so good at managing these changes that we achieve the results we want over and over again. People with jobs routinely get themselves to work even though the traffic conditions are never the same twice. Shoppers return to the markets to fill their baskets even though the prices and produce regularly differ.

From even before we are born, the circumstances of our environment and our own activity combine to produce experiences for us that contribute to the development of a fabulously extravagant network of goals, preferences, demands, ideals, standards, and other specifications about how we like things to be. Networks are like snowflakes. They are fantastically intricate and completely unique.

So, the fact is, we can never know the experiences of another person. I can think about what it might mean for me if I was to encounter what someone else describes, but that is not empathy. While I can physically stick my feet into shoes that don’t belong to me and walk around in them, I cannot do that metaphorically in the sense of knowing how it is to be a different individual.

Getting rid of empathy would not stop us from helping people who need our support. On the contrary, we might become even better helpers if we approach each helping conversation from the perspective that we don’t have a clue about the nature of the other person’s troubles. We can adopt a stance of curious, compassionate, ignorance and humility, and busy ourselves with finding out all we can about the person’s dilemma or distress. Knowing that we will never have enough information, we can enjoy an unquenchable thirst for more and more details about what it means to be another person. By sharing these details with you, the other person will be inadvertently learning more about themselves and their journey.

Empathy can inhibit and constrain conversations. If you know what someone is experiencing, you clearly don’t need to ask too much about it. When we think someone else’s circumstances are familiar to us, we can make unfounded assumptions without even realizing we are doing that. On the other hand, an attitude of curiosity, compassion, ignorance and humility encourages questioning rather than advising, learning rather than teaching, and following rather than leading.

By giving up on empathy, we might begin to relate to each other in more authentic, more intimate, and ultimately more helpful ways.

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