All That’s Asked Is Empathy

I’m going to start this post with a cartoon.  I’m starting it here because it defines what I’m about to break down. If you don’t have three minutes, don’t worry. I lay it out in the post.

Here are the notes I scribbled as I rewatched this for the umpteenth time.

Empathy is a 4-part process:

  1. Perspective taking – to see things from their perspective or recognize their perspective as their truth
  2. Staying out of judgement
  3. Recognizing emotion in others and
  4. Communicating that (Feeling with People, reflective listening)

“Empathy is a vulnerable choice. In order to connect with you, I have to connect with something in myself that knows that feeling.”

“I don’t know what to say, I’m so glad you told me. Because rarely can a response make it better. What makes it better is connection.”

What Empathy is Not

The cartoon above differentiated empathy from sympathy. They are not the same thing. Here are a few more things that empathy isn’t:

  • Empathy is not guilt. It doesn’t require you to feel shame or guilt or despair.
  • Empathy is not innate. It’s a teachable and learnable skill.
  • Empathy is an easy skill to learn, but it’s not easy to employ. It’s vulnerable.

And as much as I agreed with Meryl Streep saying that acting – the process of wearing someone else’s emotional experience completely and portraying it for others – is an act of empathy,  I am still chewing on her calling empathy a “privilege and responsibility.”

Acting, for sure, is a privilege. Especially the elite that were sitting in the room at the Golden Globes. Empathy isn’t exclusive, though. You don’t have to be rich or on TV to practice it. It’s not something saved for the people who have time for it.

For me, the point where empathy is a privilege is either when someone has confided in me – and asked me for my empathy (trusting me to stay out of judgement, etc). Or when someone is willing to have empathy for my situation.  That is deep vulnerability, trust and human connection.  For actors, that’s when someone is willing to trust their portrayal of something. I get why she said it, I’m still not sure if I wouldn’t quibble with word choice.

Is empathy a responsibility? I believe its all our responsibilities. As we live this murky life. I think it’s the only thing anyone is asking.

Why Bother with Empathy?

As I mentioned in an earlier post, empathy is the only thing that dissolves shame.  Having our experience heard, reflected and validated is how we dissolve those feelings.

On the same flight where I read I thought it was just me, but it isn’t I didn’t have epiphanies only about imposter syndrome and my shame there. I had epiphanies about friendships that left me feeling hollow and alone. Experiences with people I considered close to me, who, I realized, had shamed me when I’d taken a problem to them.  I stopped speaking to both of those people last year. I miss them, but I don’t miss their lack of empathy.

My husband teaches empathy to first responders. He teaches reflective listening (steps 3 and 4 above). When he teaches this, it’s often about de-escalating a potentially violent patient.  And it works. In fact, he’s trying to design a study to prove the difference.

Empathy is what you do when you don’t know what to do. When you feel helpless. I’m still a horrible awkward human being, so I have back-pocket things that I say when I know empathy is called for, and I’m not processing fast enough.

Empathy sounds like this:

  • “I don’t know what to say.”
  • “I can’t imagine how that feels”
  • “You sound <insert emotion>

Check your Privilege vs. Please Have Empathy

When my husband read my post on unpacking my privilege, he was stunned to see how many of his settings were the cultural default. We talked a lot about it afterwards.

The point of “unpacking” is to open the door for empathy. It’s to use your own experience of where you don’t fit cultural norms to connect to other people’s experience.  My experiences as a woman in an urban environment help me empathize with low-income black women, though their experience of the cultural default settings is still something I can’t fathom.

Brett said something interesting. “when people talk about empathy, they think it means guilt.”  And “when people talk about privilege, it feels like they want me to feel guilty.” This is counterproductive, and not true. When people suggest that someone who is privileged is speaking from a place they don’t understand, they often say “check your privilege” when what they mean is “please have empathy.”

All that’s asked is empathy.

The key here is the very first step in the empathy outlined in the cartoon. Perspective taking. To see things from their perspective or recognize their perspective as their truth.  When people whose default settings confer some advantages accept that other people’s experience is their truth, and hold that with empathy, powerful things happen.

That’s where change happens. That’s where connection happens.  That’s where shared humanity lives.



12 thoughts on “All That’s Asked Is Empathy

  1. I wonder if the a “privilege and responsibility” might be something like, “once you’re far enough above basic survival on Maslow’s pyramid, you have a responsibility to help those in need because those whoa re surviving but not thriving don’t have the energy (emotionally or physically) to do more,” or something. You know, when you’re down, really really hurt and down, having the privileged to be able to look around and take someone else’s point of view – whether an oppressor’s or the view of someone a little worse off who just doesn’t have the emotional reservoir to look beyond their own situation – really is beyond your ability. At the same time, if one’s never hit a bottom, learning more about the world and other people in it will create a depth within you and give you the perspective for creative innovation and the capacity to reach out when one’s never experienced that emotional dry well.

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