Updated: Nov 28, 2022
So you think you have empathy…
True empathy is not an intellectual or conceptual understanding of something you have never experienced – that sits in the sympathy space. You can feel sorry for someone in a particular situation but not be ‘in the moment with them’, feeling what they are feeling.
In order to be truly empathic you have to have already experienced something and have the capacity to revisit or tap into that experience, to access the emotions, the joys, the fears associated with that experience, and then directly apply them to somebody else’s situation. Empathy compels you to act in ways that alleviate someone’s distress. If all you have is a glib response to their pain or an opinion about what they should be doing, and you have no desire to ‘get involved’ – then what you are experiencing is NOT empathy.
Empathy moves you to emotionally be in the situation with the other person and demonstrate that you understand the complexity of their problems and the importance of their concerns.
Most people consider themselves to be empathic because they think they understand somebody else’s experience. But its more than understanding a situation or a point of view. And because they think they understand they determine themselves sufficiently ‘qualified’ to comment on someone’s situation. In reality what they call empathy is a limited view of someone else’s pain and a demonstration of an empathy gap!
An empathy gap exists where an individual (because they lack certain directly relatable experiences) is unable to put themselves in someone else’s shoes in order to show compassion and whatever support is required for someone other than themselves.
We don't like the idea that as a person we can fail to understand a different perspective. We prefer to believe that we are open minded enough, broadminded enough to understand different mental, emotional, social states to justify our opinions of others, our judgments of others and our predictions of the actions these people are likely to take. What we describe as empathy for many is in reality our justification to judge others.
Saying things like “I know what it's like to a,b,c” or “ I've been in that position and I never had to x,y,z...” enables us to judge, because I am now judging from a position of “experience”. Prefacing my judgement with words like “I know what it's like…” allows us to prejudge, misjudge, dismiss, ridicule, and condemn the actions of others when all we've actually done is struggle to understand the reality and complexity of someone else’s situation or condition.
For example, [Scenario 1] consider that I have experienced a loss of liberty (for any reason). I was however provided with food and clothing, but I could not go out when I wanted to. I had limited personal choice over what to wear. I was told who I could and could not speak to. I was not allowed to manage my money. I was criticised or punished if I failed to do as I was told etc. I then go on to hear stories about Meghan Markle regarding the challenges of being a princess relative to a loss of liberty and loss control of one’s life. On a scale of 1-10 how would you rate my empathy in that moment?
I think I would score a ‘7’ or ‘8’. If I am truly empathic and by that, I mean I am able to share aspects of an experience with somebody else – I will tune into Megan Markle’s loss of liberty, not being free to come and go etc. My empathy would be quite high. I would of course recognise that I am not a princess, not rich and not an icon/celebrity but I would be able to align myself with certain aspects of her experiences in relative terms. I would tap into what it was like for me when I wasn’t free to do my own thing. I would then be moved to act in ways informed by my empathy. So where others might say.. ‘Oh boohoo Megan—that’s the price you pay!’…because I empathise, I am likely to defend her rather than criticise.
[Scenario 2] Now consider that I have never experienced a loss of liberty (though I have an intellectual, conceptual understanding of what that might be like). I am an average person doing an average job, trying to make ends meet. I haven’t had a holiday in forever, I can’t afford designer clothes, my car has been off the road because I can’t afford to tax it at the moment and the boiler is on its way out etc. Then I hear this story about the challenges of being a princess…on a scale of 1 to 10 how would you rate my empathy? ‘0000.1’
Now in both scenarios do I not have the capacity to understand the concept of a loss of liberty?
Of course I do.
But my capacity to be empathetic is directly linked to my current situation along with my past experiences which have also informed my current situation. We describe this phenomenon as state dependency. In other words how we process information and make decisions strongly depends on our mental state at the time. This is how an empathy gap occurs because as I said at the beginning, we can conceptually understand something, but our lack of relative experience and our present circumstances will determine how wide the empathy gap is.
This is how I can say with conviction for example, I would never be hungry enough to dumpster dive – I would find an alternative because I’m good under pressure! I can say with conviction that I would never cheat on my partner, or I would never join a cult – only weak-minded people do that! I would never feel pressured enough to take drugs! And so on… because my current mental state does not give me the capacity to tune into the mental state of another person who has a drug addiction for example because I have never experienced addiction.
Let me give you a working example of how an empathy gap can exist, and be narrowed or closed.
I had been conditioned for many years by others, the media and certain outreach programmes that you should not give people considered to be homeless or rough sleeping, money because they will spend it on alcohol or drugs. I’ve watched documentaries that confirmed this, where parents pleaded with viewers not to give homeless young people money because they do have a loving home to come back to.
I was systematically advised to instead buy the coffee the homeless person or rough sleeper was asking for, or the meal that they were asking for. But one night on my way home from work I had to walk from the train station to my home because I could not get a cab. It had been a long (and if you know my story, trying day). The tube (subway) was packed. The train was cold. I just couldn't get warm. And now I had to walk home!
It was only a 20-minute walk but on that night the temperature had fallen to about -3 degrees. It was absolutely freezing. I do not function well in the cold—it makes me quite grumpy. As I walked home it occurred to me that as miserable as I was walking in the cold, as annoyed as I was because I could not get a cab, that each step I took drew me closer to a centrally heated house, a safe environment, and a place where I would very soon be able to eat, drink, unwind, and sleep. And I considered that there were individuals who in that very moment we're outside sleeping rough, and even though there were shelters available we all know that every person in need of shelter for whatever reason is not accommodated every time.
As I walked I started to think — what if I had to spend this particular night outside. What would help me get through the night? And I considered that I would have to drink a whole bottle of something to numb the pain of the cold, to numb the pain of knowing that I was sooooo out of options that sleeping rough was all that was available to me; to numb the pain of no one caring about me; the pain of invisibility; a lack of safety, a lack of hope that would be there the next day, the next night, the next day, the next night….
Even with my conditioning, I have given money to rough sleepers…but I often wandered if they would spend that money on drugs. Yet as I walked home on this freezing cold night, I had an epiphany. I realised that my judgement around addiction was fuelled by my own lack of empathy. I was giving and judging at the same time. The little bit of empathy I had (in that I would give them money) was snuffed out by judgement.
When I give money to rough sleepers now whilst I do not condone addiction of any kind, I recognise that if I was in that position I might not be handling that situation any better or any differently than they are. Now when I give money there's no judgement, no wondering what the rough sleeper might spend that money on. No wondering about how they can afford to have a dog while I’m struggling in various days. Instead, there is hope that this is the last night of having to sleep rough; there is hope that any kindness shown by others is just what they needed in that moment. And in a world where they are often invisible, ignored and sometimes abused it must give them such joy to have a dog to care about, to love and be loved back!
Our capacity to empathise is state dependent. There can be a huge gap between where we are versus where somebody else is, and until we have the humility to recognise this, we will continue to struggle to understand someone else’s situation whilst simultaneously deluding ourselves that we do understand, and that we understand well enough to comment, make decisions, predictions, and pass judgement. We don't like to see ourselves as lacking, but to be truly human is to recognise our own lack, our own failings along with the humility that is necessary to understand and support others.
Nairobi Thompson Blog Post (c) 2022
For more information on the empathy gap see: The Empathy Gap: Why People Fail to Understand Different Perspectives – Effectiviology