How Hard is Empathy?

(cc) Daan Franken.
(cc) Daan Franken.

Why is it so easy to immerse ourselves in our own suffering, but so difficult to understand the suffering of others?

Take these two essays about accommodation in yoga for instance.

In the first – a self professed skinny white woman (Jen Caro) shares her thoughts – which she admits she was projecting – onto an overweight black woman who entered her yoga class and had a difficult time of it, and who apparently spent the entire course in child pose (link).

And this response by Maya Rupert explaining that – the problem wasn’t that you were white: (link)

I practice yoga and it takes ages to feel comfortable doing it. When you are overweight and you do a fold, you have no idea where to put your belly. It’s fat and in the way. Which makes getting into poses, really difficult. It gets easier, if you practice regularly. You find your belly is less of a problem and somehow, not as much in the way as it was before.

My point is that the musings of how Jen Caro felt like she failed because her instinct to reach out and assure the newbie that the problems she was having on her first day were something everyone goes through, was thwarted by the race issue. And it was more than that – as her conclusion points out – how can we create spaces that are welcoming to everybody and to every body? And how can we figure out how to engage without the fear of looking stupid or insensitive about race or weight for that matter?

But just as the skinny white girl’s response was filled with projection and so seemed to lack empathy, so is the black woman’s response. Maya Rupert’s response is about race. But that was only part of the problem. The real problem was about body shape and specifically, where the heck do you put your overweight belly, when you first start practicing yoga and why was Jen Caro too afraid to reach out to this woman in solidarity just because she’s black.

Both writers have empathy. They both however struggle to really understand the experience of the other because they are stuck in their own frame of reference. And so both misunderstood and were misunderstood. Ultimately, their responses are based on their own fears and projections and are not based on any actual understanding of the real experiences or struggles of the other person. All they can do is guess and assume.

And this is why empathy is so hard. Every time we feel empathy, we are making an assumption about the person we are feeling empathy for. When we feel empathy or sympathy for the suffering or struggles of another, we are only really able to do so when we related that experience to our own experiences. Empathy is inherently an act of projection. That these projections say more about us than about the person we are expressing empathy for is a built in limitation of the experience.

But that shouldn’t stop us from cultivating our empathy or encouraging it, even if it is flawed and even if the recipient of my empathy doesn’t want my sympathy. It’s still an exercise in reminding myself that my frame of reference is just that. Mine. And the more I remember that, the more truly aware of others I become.

Even though my empathy is flawed because of the problem of self-projection, it doesn’t matter. Empathy is something you get better at with practice and to me it is worth practicing, because empathy helps me to remember that it’s not about me.

Whenever I have a negative gut reaction to the way someone tries to express sympathy or empathy – I forgive them for being awkward about it. It’s better that they tried to express it than they don’t. We should absolutely not be beating up someone who made a good faith effort at empathy.

And furthermore, I think we need to find the courage to express empathy even when we are worried it might not be well received. We need to put ourselves out there. Sure, sometimes we will be rebuffed. But sometimes the people we reach out to may really need our help. And I would rather err on the side of caution to offer help when it is not needed rather than to withhold help for fear of being seen as condescending.

After all, what else can we do?
Editor’s Note: On the topic of empathy, but otherwise unrelated to this article, we would also like to share this excellent RSA video on cultivating empathy through what they call ‘outrospection’…


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2 thoughts on “How Hard is Empathy?”

  1. I'm so glad to see empathy addressed more! We definitely need more of this in our society and in our personal practice. Thanks much for this article Jennifer!


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