Why what you think is empathy, may not be empathy…
Few days ago, I was responding to someone’s question about a certain choice I made. As I began to explain, I was met with knowing nods, recounting of similar choices, and a lot of advice.
I really appreciated the care, but none of it was really relevant to me!
My first urge was to correct, to explain. But I didn’t. I didn’t have any particular need to be heard.
Later, it was interesting to reflect, that the times that I have felt least heard, has often been the times people have said to me that they understand.
Isn’t that curious!
Even though saying it aloud (I hope!) sounds ludicrous- we think everyone experiences life the way we do. So we constantly try to fit people into the boxes we have and the way we think the world works. (That is the very idea behind the concept of “normal”!). And most of the times it’s approximate enough to work for us. It doesn’t, when our experiences or worldview are divergent enough.
Contrary to what most of us believe, we actually struggle to cultivate true empathy. True empathy comes from fully inhabiting another’s perspective, stepping into their shoes, and looking at the world AS them.
Instead, in the face of another’s experience, we experience one of two things : 1) reliving a similar personal experience, and attributing the emotions we experience to the other person, 2) care for what we think the other person is experiencing.
(Which is why we have a lot of trouble “empathising” with people very different from us, or those who think or act in a way “we wouldn’t”.)
So how do we know that what we feel is empathy?
When we have a sense of knowing that in their shoes, we would make exactly the same choices, behave in exactly the same way, as the other person. When we have a felt sense of their journey. When we can differentiate how that is not our own, yet fully feel theirs. When we feel ourselves stepping out of our skin and stepping into theirs.
If we are not doing that, it is sympathy (similar-feeling-as-another), not empathy (in-feeling-as-another) .
It is empathy that makes us feel heard.
Because, we feel heard when someone gets the place we are coming from. There aren’t enough words in the world to explain that place. It can only be sensed. Getting to that sense begins with empathy. With feeling as.