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.