The ability to step outside of ourselves and into the perspective of another person is a simple skill with a transformative power – whether we are talking about a married couple resolving a misunderstanding or an expatriate discerning a bewildering local culture.
And yet, it seems that recently, empathy has come under attack. For example, Yale professor Paul Bloom has argued that “empathy has all sorts of bad effects.” Defining it as “feeling the suffering of another person,” he describes it as arrogant, unrealistic, and unhelpful. More striking, he argues that it actually promotes immorality and inequality because it tells us to listen to our heart strings instead of rational thinking.
I do not disagree entirely. There are limits to how fully we can know what it is like to be another person, and if our only goal is to feel their pain, empathy does not seem particularly useful. One could argue that, rather than trying to feel like a starving child, it would be better to feed him. And, if we make decisions solely on feelings, we may fuel problematic biases. For example, if we are motivated to prove our status as “good people” we may fall into traps like the savior complex that disempower those we mean to help.
A different definition
That said, Bloom and I would diverge on three key points. First, I define empathy more broadly, along the lines of Merriam Webster: the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another. This empathy is not limited to mirroring feelings, but includes talking, sharing, listening, and learning. It can be a two-way street, and goes beyond suffering.
Second, I see empathy as a part of the process, a step that provides us with insights that we can use in deciding how to respond to challenges, particularly when we are bogged down. Empathy is an opportunity to interrupt our reflexive response patterns, hold the other person’s humanity as equally valid to ours, ask ourselves what else we might not know, and consider a situation from a different angle. However, it is not the goal itself.
Third, although empathy involves stepping outside of ourselves, it does not stop us from returning home afterward. It does not require us to like each other or come to the same conclusion. It also does not oblige us to make everyone happy or forget our values in the name of getting along. Empathy does not prevent us from engaging in rational thinking or moral reasoning. Put another way, empathy can function as a lighthouse shining on rocky coast, but it can’t tell us where we are trying to go (or why), nor teach us how to sail.
Wading through empathy
This is the main challenge I see with empathy: it can make things messier. When we come face to face with how another person sees, thinks, and feels, it can mean adding variables to an already unwieldy equation. It can also raise uncomfortable questions not only about the situation and the other party, but even about our own self-concept. Particularly if we are perfectionists, pleasers, or conflict-avoiders, we may feel stressed to realize that even if everyone has a valid point and good intentions (and those are pretty big “ifs”) it still may not be possible to reach a perfect compromise.
And yet, this is less a problem of empathy per se, and more about knowing who we are, what our goals are, and where our boundaries lie. The context and our competence in wading through all of this matter a great deal, too. Consider a doctor working with an immigrant patient, a business person negotiating with a global counterpart, a student making friends while studying abroad, or even a parent negotiating smart phone screen time with a teenager. In each case, empathy can contribute to the best possible outcome – but the definition of what that is will vary with the situation’s parameters and the parties’ prerogatives, flexibility, and ability.
Empathy in the real world
I wade through this on a daily basis with my Korean mother-in-law, who recently moved in with us. As you would imagine, she brings with her different opinions and ways of doing things, many of which are culturally rooted. Empathy is beneficial because it helps me see the motivations behind behaviors and opens up possibilities in the gray area between “my way and the highway.” It also encourages me to see her as a multidimensional person, and helps me grow closer to her, which perpetuates a cycle of positive reinforcement.
Yet, even when I appreciate a situation from her perspective, I may still be unwilling or unable to do what she wants. I have to remind myself that my goal is not to perform as an archetypal Korean daughter-in-law, but to nimbly and steadily build a productive relationship with a real-life person, in the real-world context of my own personal life.
It isn’t easy, and sometimes I feel ensnared by my empathy. Yet this isn’t because empathy is bad, but because life brings complications that have to be sorted out. Discarding empathy might make things seem easier on the surface, but just as turning a light off in a room doesn’t make the furniture disappear, cutting myself off from insights won’t make underlying challenges go away. And ultimately, with or without the support of empathy, the only real way to make progress is to do the hard work.
Empathy isn’t one-size-fits-all, nor a panacea. Even so, it is a valuable part of my practice in navigating relationships with my fellow human beings, particularly when crossing cultures. How are you engaging with empathy? Or struggling with it? Let’s have a chat!