On the limits of empathy

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Who this article is targeted for:

  • People who want to improve their people skills
  • People who don’t feel understood
  • People who feel alone
  • Couples or friends or family with a strained relationship
  1. Self-interest is a default state.
  2. Empathy is a developed state.
  3. LESSON 1: Don’t expect perfect empathy from others.
  4. LESSON 2: You are your own best advocate of your needs.

Self-interest is a default state.

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I can pinch you right now, and you will feel it. You can’t really escape the fact that you’ll feel it. The same applies to the rest of your internal experience. When you feel happy, you’ll feel it too. You’ll smile like a goofball, and while no one else will really feel those warm fuzzy feelings you’re experiencing, you’ll feel them. The same goes for when you’re sad or hungry or angry or itchy or anything really.

You’re at the front seat of your own roller-coaster, and you’re never going to be able to get off.

For that reason, self-interest is a default state. Whatever you’re feeling or needing, you’ll be the first to know, and you’ll experience it hard. You can’t really escape that fact. It’s part of the fundamental human condition.

Empathy is a developed state.

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Look at a stranger near you. Think about what they’re feeling, what they’re needing. Try it. Can you feel what they’re feeling? What are you doing in your mind right now to try to feel their feelings?

You were just engaging your imagination. Empathy requires the use of imagination, and for that reason, it’s more indirect. There’s an extra step. It takes mental effort. Empathy is like watching a live POV feed of someone else riding their own roller-coaster. Fun but often not as intense. You have to take the time to get into it.

Empathy has a shortcut though: using your personal experience as an analog. If you’ve gone through a heart-wrenching breakup, you won’t have to imagine what your friend is feeling right now. For the most part, you’ll know what she’s feeling.

Whether it’s imagination or personal experience though, the point is that empathy is not automatic. It has to be developed, either by improving your ability to imagine or by increasing the range of your personal experience.

LESSON 1: Don’t expect perfect empathy from others.

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We all want to be understood. We want someone there for us to give us a pat on the back and tell us, “I know what you’re going through. I feel for you.”

That’s possible to have with people, but don’t expect it all the time. So, don’t get too upset if you’re not being understood. Empathy is imperfect. Here are two main reasons to remember:

1: Because empathy is not automatic, not everyone will even be engaging their empathy muscles with you. Either they’re just not using their imagination, or they haven’t gone through what you’re going through right now. Don’t blame them for that. They’re just not ready to understand you. Have patience.

2: Even when empathy is being engaged, imagination and personal experience are only approximations of your inner experience. They’re not a perfect fit. And people can get you wrong. They could imagine things that aren’t there. Or get the rough idea of you right but not fully understand everything. That’s normal too. Don’t blame people if they don’t fully understand you. At least they’re trying.

LESSON 2: You are your own best advocate of your needs.

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Because empathy can break down, we can’t always depend on others to satisfy our needs or respond to our feelings without us first prompting them.

We have to be our own advocate first. Let people know that you’re sad or hungry or angry or frustrated or happy or irritated or sleepy.

This just seems fair: we have a special connection to ourselves all the time, and other people don’t. We have it easy; other people have to work at it.

At least give them a helping hand.

(DISCLAIMER: It takes work to understand yourself too, but it’s easier because of your special access to yourself.)


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