This week I have spent a lot of time talking with others about empathy. It seems that there is a large discrepancy in the understanding of empathy, what is is and how to use it. I will forewarn you that this goes on a few tangents but hopefully comes together.
To start with the most basic thing – the definition, according to merriam-webster –
Definition of empathy:
- 1: the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner also: the capacity for this
- 2: the imaginative projection of a subjective state into an object so that the object appears to be infused with it
I have a friend that really struggles with empathy ask how you can be empathetic without being someone’s friend. The question itself shows the lack of understanding of what empathy is because it infers that you must be someone’s friend and/or like them to empathize with them.
Another friend and I were talking about the same subject; I was explaining empathy for those that have very different view points and she said that tolerate was the word she would use and again I had to think that was a bit misconceived, it is yet common idea. To tolerate something is to just let it be, it is the lowest form of understanding whereas empathy requires that you step outside of yourself to put yourself in others shoes.
Empathy requires work and selflessness. It is a skill; skills must be developed and practiced to succeed. It requires that we step outside ourselves and try to truly understand someone and their actions. It is an important, I would say necessary skill in humanity.
As I have previously explored Sense of Self, I would like to say my belief is that when you have a greater Sense of Self, a true, honest understanding of yourself than you can have empathy. This is because you are aware of your own values, strengths, weaknesses and hopefully are able to understand why you do the things you do, treat others the way you do or act a certain way. In turn you understand how complicated a single person can be, that they are the make up of every event or interaction they’ve had and the nature that is within them, good or bad.
On the flip side with a lesser than, unrealistic or not entirely honest sense of self you will find yourself not being truly empathetic. Because often those who are unaware of themselves or their affect on others are unable or unwilling to put themselves in another’s shoes. They believe they are however their lens is always their own.
My first friend I mentioned owns her own business, she does care about her employees (I believe this) however she always expects them to act just like her. If they do not, than they are wrong or lazy. I have tried to implore her to think about what someone might need to be successful in their role, what information, tools, resources are required to do their role right. Also to stop and say not everyone is me, what if I knew nothing, was raised different, what would I need to succeed. The last piece of the puzzle is holding people accountable. This is where she struggles most, because the thought process of being someones friend or ‘being nice’ or empathetic means to her that you let things go.
This brings in the fact that having or showing empathy doesn’t mean you are giving up your expectations, it also doesn’t mean you have to accept negative or hurtful behavior. What it means is that you are putting yourself in another’s shoes and trying to understand why they did or didn’t do the action. Empathy requires that you step out of your own narcissism and be willing to accept differences without judgement.
The second example where my friend and I were talking about with different values, was that of racism. I was telling the story of a conflict resolution class where my prof asked us to state something that was completely wrong. My example was racism, I was adamant that I could never understand people that were racist, it’s just stupid. My prof challenged me and said what if I grew up with a family that held racist beliefs, if I had little access to education and lived in an area that those beliefs were validated because the race I took issue with were criminals, and every interaction I ever had was negative. What would I believe?
It was an eye opener and if I am going to be 100% honest with myself, up until the age 24, I myself had a tinge of racism. Being born and raised in Calgary, by all rights in a privileged family, I had no knowledge of Residential schools or First Nations culture. When I started going to high school downtown and saw lots of ‘drunk natives’ (I cringe as I admit this was a term used in 1999), I had very little empathy and was by all intensive purposes racist. It wasn’t until a friend of mine told be about the schools, which I initially genuinely couldn’t believe existed (that’s how crazy it seemed to me) but I looked into the history and opened my mind and heart up to their circumstances, I can now understand how messed up my thinking was before.
Now I wasn’t a bad person as a teenager, I wasn’t blatantly racist, I just didn’t know. I genuinely didn’t know and it is possible that someone that met me would have a very negative view of me. They would think I was privileged, uneducated and because of being opinionated, unwilling to be open to new information or incapable of change. They would be wrong because they didn’t use empathy to really get to know me. I am very concerned with facts and always open to learning.
My most personal use of empathy is that towards my Father. He is not an easy man to say the least. He is an alcoholic, at times abusive both verbally and physically – he broke my mother’s nose, I have a vivid memory of spending a night in the Women’s Shelter and countless verbal/emotional tales. However he is also very generous, a great conversationalist, he is caring, intelligent and a good, if not great doctor. I have spent my life saying that I hate my Father’s actions, not him; that is empathy. I don’t know what my Father was like as a young parent, however I do know that at age 27, he lost his first love, his wife and the mother to his four young children – all while he was trying to complete medical school in another city.
I am admittedly not very compassionate for addicts however I can have empathy. I always think that if it was me in my Father’s shoes what would I be like, how would I have turned out. Would I have been able to finish medical school? Would I have self medicated with alcohol? Could I have done better? I don’t know. What I do know is that he did the best he could. To have a relationship with him, which is important to me, I need to try and understand him but it doesn’t mean I have to be ok with his behavior or actions. I can call him out, I can take a break, I can hold him accountable.
Now I want also mention that there is a difference between sympathy and empathy, sympathy is to feel sorry for. Sympathy doesn’t really add value when you are considering individuals. It makes sense for occasions like death or accidents or small things but it doesn’t help to feel sorry for a person; people are dynamic, they are capable of such much. Empathy on the other hand does, because having empathy allows you to see through a lens that is different than your own. Sympathy may taint your reaction and illicit an ‘it’s ok’ reaction to negative behavior where as empathy can say ‘it’s not ok’. I understand your reasoning, or that these awful things happened however the corresponding behavior/reaction is or is not ok.
My sister and I were having a conversation around her youngest child. He is a high functioning autistic child, with tactile sensitivity. He is only a few months older than my middle child, so I remember my sister and I or my mom and I talking about introducing foods. I really disagreed with what my sister fed her son, I am a strict person when it comes to veggies and my kids have always followed the rule that veggies first or nothing. I didn’t stop to think that something might be stopping him from eating, I didn’t realize the stress it was causing her. I admittedly thought she just wasn’t up for the fight however in her son’s case there really isn’t anything she could do. His peculiarities, him and who he is make it impossible.
In our conversation she mentioned that she met a new group of people that didn’t know about her son’s autism and they remarked that they couldn’t really see any difference in him and others. This had been a relief because her whole family (me included) when the diagnosis came out were like, yes, ok, that makes sense. I felt awful because I realized that in what we thought was empathy was sympathy. I thought things like I was just so glad my child ate ok, or it must just be so hard for her. Instead I could have been asking why do you think he is struggling, how does he feel, why does he react like that. Can you see the difference? The shift from judging and sympathy to trying to understand, to accept the person all in.
There are days where you are going to get empathy right and days where are aren’t, that’s ok. Again Empathy is something that takes time and practice, again it’s a skill. Empathy is not agreeing, it is not letting things go, it is not sympathy, it is truly understanding each person as an individual. It is respect (new tangent, for another day).
So the next time you have an encounter, not matter how small – whether it’s being interrupted during a conversation, having someone share your secret, seeing a child have a tantrum, dealing with a difficult customer or anything, try to put yourself in their shoes. Stop, step outside yourself and if you don’t have all the information to understand, ask.
Empathy is seeking to understand, in seeking to understand you become more – more open, more curious, more caring, more kind, more genuine, more knowledgeable, more able, just more. Because empathy can change the world, and yes I know that is a big, bold statement but it’s true.
Let me know if you have ever had a hard time with empathy? When? Why?