Why I Think “Empathy” Is An Often Misused And Therefore Harmful Concept

TL;DR

In short, empathy, in my view is a lazy excuse for doing something you think will be right, rather than actually communicating with another human being.


Those of you who read me often know I’m all about communication, and in order to communicate, we have to use words that mean the same thing to each of us.

So, first I’m going to define empathy:

em·pa·thy

ˈempəTHē
noun: empathy

the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.

A simple dictionary definition. One I think we can all get behind, right? Well, even if not, this is the definition I’m using for this writing, because it’s the one I know and understand.

Here’s my thing… do we ever truly understand another? I mean we get close, through conversation, but do we ever really truly understand?

And share? No. Just no. We don’t share feelings, because I believe we cannot feel the same way another feels. Because there is no way of knowing what that is.

I often hear people talk about how they are so empathetic. Many of these same people are the ones with relationship problems and drama all over the place, because they are often incredibly off in their “readings.”

Because most of the time it’s not empathy. It’s projection. Or sympathy at best.

Empathy is walking a mile in someone’s moccasins. Sympathy is being sorry their feet hurt. — Rebecca O’Donnell

Now, I’m not saying that empaths don’t exist. They may. So might telepaths. But I have yet to meet one.

And I’ve met dozens, perhaps hundreds of people who claim to be empathic. And they use this to “shortcut” their relationships.

“I know how you’re feeling…”

No. You don’t.

Saying, “I’m empathic…” as a reason for treating someone one way or another is lazy.

Yes, it’s lazy. And frankly, I think it’s a fantasy that does more harm than good. Like most portrayals of romance.

The fantasy obscures the reality, which is so much more fascinating.

I admit it… I’m not empathic. At all.

I don’t “feel” from others. I’m incapable of it.

I simply get to know them, and ask them questions. Then, once I know them well, intellectually I get an understanding of what works best for them.

And then, I follow that up with questions, so I know next time whether to do something similar or change it up.

And when they do something that I don’t expect, I ask, “So, when A happened, I thought you would react Y, but instead you reacted B. What am I misunderstanding about you?”

This is instead of thinking, “Oh, They did this because they think I meant that by those words, and so they overreacted, so I will do this other thing to try to make them feel better/appease them.”

Because, frankly, it doesn’t work.

You know what works? ASKING people what they think and mean.

You know, the people you supposedly love and want to know more about?

Yeah. get to know them, instead of making assumptions and pushing your assumptions on them in the form of ill-conceived actions.

And for heaven’s sake, don’t tell people how they feel.

Seriously. That’s just rude.

Even if you think you know how someone is feeling, do the work. find out for sure. Because being wrong damages your relationship, your communication and your trust.

AT BEST, those who are “naturals” at empathy are probably just naturals at reading body language, a la Cal Lightman from Lie to Me.

However, as he constantly points out, he can see emotions on someone’s face, but he cannot know WHY the emotions are there.

If I can read your face and know you are feeling guilty, that still doesn’t tell me if it’s because you actually did something wrong, or if you just THINK you might have done something wrong, based on a complete misunderstanding.

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