The Limitations of Empathy

“Put yourself in his or her shoes,” I often find myself saying to my students in order to encourage them to respond kindly and with compassion. And in some cases, that works, especially when the recipient of my advice has had a similar experience to that of the student in question. If I’m asking a kid to empathize with the disappointment of a failing grade or the misery of the flu, they will come through with greater understanding and tolerance.

But what if I ask them to empathize with something they’ve never experienced?

Sure, they can try to imagine what it would be like to be Anne Frank trembling in the attic with Nazi soldiers below as they read her story. They can write letters from the perspective of Civil War soldiers, relating their experiences to their families back at home. Or, much more recently, they can listen to the adults in their lives tell the story of 9/11 and they can follow along and perhaps name emotions felt on that day.

But they can’t truly emphasize because they lack the underlying experiences.

With kids, I’m aware of and (usually) patient of their limitations in empathy. With adults? It’s harder.I sometimes forget that not everyone has had similar experiences. Not everyone has the background to be able to slip into another’s shoes.

I felt this acutely when Brock and I started dating. He didn’t seem to able to grasp the depth of the betrayal and loss I experienced. It made us both frustrated – me because I felt misunderstood and him because he wanted to understand, but couldn’t. It bothered me, but it was never a major issue. After all, I had a support system for dealing with my past and he wasn’t the primary support beam. And even though he didn’t always understand, he always treated me (and my issues!) with respect and concern.

And then, out of the blue, he recently surprised me. He initiated a conversation about how difficult a divorce must be and how it impacts every area of someone’s life. Now that we’ve been married almost a year (how time does fly!) and he has experienced the intimacy and intertwining that comes from allowing oneself to be vulnerable and open, he realizes what can be lost.

And now he can empathize.

I know he still doesn’t understand the extent of my ex’s pathology (whatever it may be) or the brutality of the betrayal, but I hope he never does. Those are experiences I hope he never has.

Even if it means he will never completely understand.

And that’s the thing about empathy. It has its limitations. After all, you can put on someone else’s shoes, but you still won’t have walked in their past steps.

The Four Worst Things to Say to a Friend Who Is Suffering

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3 thoughts on “The Limitations of Empathy

  1. I find that people can sometimes relate to a piece of what I’ve been through, but I agree with you…it’s rare that someone that understand the whole of your experience. But trying to understand is a very good thing, indeed 🙂

  2. I have to say I don’t think empathy would be so important if people did the right thing regardless of whether they could empathise. I met someone who lost a leg because of a drunk driver. I seriously cannot imagine how awful that must be, but I know intellectually that it was, in so many ways I wouldn’t be able to imagine, and so my response is to feel for her, offer to help, and be even more vigilant about driving sober than I already was. It’s the people who can’t walk in your shoes but also can’t tell right from wrong and therefore go out and do it to someone, they’re the problem.

    My ex boyfriend had a right bitch of a partner after we split. She was horrible to me even when we were together. When one day I had the chance to make a move on him and it would probably have worked, I didn’t. Not because I walked in *her* shoes, but because I walked in mine imagining I had, and knowing what kind of a person that would make me. So I didn’t.

    Sometimes if you haven’t had the experience you can’t feel their pain. It doesn’t absolve you from doing the right thing though.

    So I think it’s all good that your husband is in your corner and ready to side with you against the pathological ex. I don’t think it really matters if he can walk in your shoes. As you say, it’s not really possible. I say it’s not really necessary. All he needs is love and loyalty.

  3. When my ex-wife took off with our kids it was the worst pain I could ever imagine. I still struggle at times with the pain that it caused. I get up at night and just go and look at them to make sure they are still there. It twists and torments your soul in ways you can’t even begin to imagine. At least I knew my ex-wife had my kids, even if I didn’t know where she was. I was horrified, but how much more so would it have been if it had been some stranger (besides her lover she was with) had them? I have a hard time watching any bad news about kids. I try to read the articles or watch the news, but a lot of time I have to turn it off. I am so overwhelmed by grief and pain I cannot handle it.

    To this day I have an issue with babysitters, daycare, and even sending the kids to school at times. I am getting better, but I will never be able to trust my ex-wife with our kids. She hasn’t made any contact with them in a very long time, but even if she was I know that I’d never feel comfortable with them going to see her unsupervised. That being said, I’d still let them go as long as they were provided an out.

    At times I wish I could shut off the empathy, but I can’t. So God is slowly, but surely, teaching me how to use it to help others.

    Sorry, I went down a really dark path there, a lot darker than I intended. Have a good one.

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