What is empathy?

person wearing white and blue socks

Empathy is a recurring theme in the things I like to think and talk about. Along with sympathy, emotion, mental health and the relationship between these concepts.

I like to think that if I had grown up happier and more stable, I would have gone on to work in mental healthcare. When I briefly considered this educational track in my teens, I quickly realized that many people who have ‘issues’ go into mental health care. For fear of being stigmatized as someone who has issues, I didn’t choose that track. On the other hand, if I had grown up any other way, I might not have been interested in psychology at all. Who knows.

It took me 31 years to figure out what the hell was going on my family of origin. Maybe, if I had gone into mental healthcare, I would have figured out sooner. On the other hand, I very much doubt it. Many things in life, including many types of neurological difficulties or mental illness, cannot be captured in a flat piece of text, I am convinced.

Ever since I discovered that my mother is mindblind and that my father has a whole shelf of self-help books dedicated to healing from people like him, humanity makes so much sense to me. Yet, at times, it feels disheartening that this understanding doesn’t change anything. People are still people. But maybe it’s enough to realize what dynamics are at play. Maybe, by figuring something out, by getting to the bottom of things and then finding the right words for it, we can better mankind after all. Here’s my take on empathy.

Empathy for yourself

two women wearing blue denim tops

Do you know what it’s like to feel un-mpathetic? It’s a profoundly disturbing feeling. It is one of the feelings I had during my teens and in early adulthood. Not that I literally had the word ’empathy’ on the tip of my tongue. But I felt out of touch, out of place. I tried very, very hard to be kind and understanding. I had quite a broad network of people that I was a part of in university. However, I felt it hurting in my bones whenever things went wrong: I cringed whenever I interjected at the wrong moment; I observed myself try to be interesting rather than authentic; I watched myself struggle and stutter; I struggled to respond in a way that made me feel that there was some common ground between us. I watched others respond to me, I watched myself respond to them and I felt helpless against the torrent of self-fulfilling prophecies around my dejection and panic at having to learn to relate to people.

Let me correct that: at having to learn to relate to normal adults. After growing up in a household dynamic for which only the word ‘apalling’ is suitable, I had to figure out how the normal world worked. On a subconscious level I understood what was going on, that the things I was experiencing were mostly due to my past, but fully realizing what it had done to me, I didn’t know until last year. What I remember mostly of my teens and early twenties is a desperate feeling of “I’m doing it wrong!”.

Not only that, I had to figure out how to relate to myself. It’s rather difficult to have trauma, which comes with the default set of “Nobody can relate to me”, “I’m unloveable”, “I can’t cope” and “I’m terminally different”. It really puts a spanner in the works of self-love, self-discovery and self-acceptance. I can now look back at it and say to myself, of course you were struggling to figure out how to be authentic. Which young adult doesn’t?

You have to figure out who you are, before you can truly relate to other people. You have to be able to put yourself in your own shoes first. The crippling feeling of not being empathetic enough, was first and foremost me not being empathetic to myself.

Putting yourself in your own shoes

The most crucial skill to learn for anyone, I think, is to say ‘No’. To have boundaries. If these boundaries are denied or not taught, then you have no boundary between yourself and the world. You can therefore not know who you are. If you do not (or were not allowed) to assert a difference between you and the other person (i.e. your parents), there is no ‘you’. Therefore, you cannot empathize with yourself. You never got to know or understand who ‘you’ really is. If you have no sense of self, you cannot have sympathy for your own actions, thoughts and beliefs, especially the uglier ones.

To learn to have boundaries, is a skill that children from healthy families learn around the age of 2. “I’m two and I say no” (which rhymes in Dutch: Ik ben twee en ik zeg nee) is one of many crucial development phases. The child says ‘no’ to everything. And I mean everything. To apple juice, to orange juice, pear juice, shoes on, shoes off, socks on, socks off, everything receives a screeching ‘NO’!! And then the child may very well cry that she doesn’t have apple juice and shoes. The parent tries to help the child figure things out, sometimes responds and sometimes lets the child figure it out for themselves. And yes, sometimes you will put on those socks because we have to go to grandma now. Or hell, maybe you come along barefoot. Whatever. At first, boundaries are messy, unclear things. You don’t know what you want. But you do realize that you have the power to want. Or rather, to not want. And you start to exert that power. It should be a rollercoaster to learn this superpower, sometimes exhilarating, sometimes overwhelming. But in the end, you gain knowledge of who you are and what you want.

If you start this process as an adult, it is fucking scary. If you were denied your ‘no’, you may be terrified of saying ‘no’. But you must. You must say no. Even if people frown at you. Especially when they frown at you. Even if they think you are weird. Especially when they think you’re weird. Even if you merely fear that they may think you’re inconsistent. Especially when you are afraid. You can change your yes to a no at any time, and your no to a yes.

I’m writing this down for myself, mostly. I remember discovering ‘no’ and having a sense of victory at discovering this. Only to be screamed at, screeched at and receiving threats. I remember pleading, crying ‘no no no’ to my mother as she came at me to physically hurt me for whatever normal phase of child development she couldn’t handle. I recently remembered how I would hide under the bed as my mother hunted me down to punish me, physically. I remember her hitting me and my brother, slapping our butts, hard and repeatedly while we cried. When it was over there was no safety. Nobody to turn to. I remember when my father kicked me and all the times my father screamed, sulked, moaned, complained and shouted whenever he didn’t get his way.

I used to think that I had to know exactly what I wanted, at the moment it was asked of me. I felt that I had to predict exactly what I wanted. I had to be excruciatingly consistent for the other persons’ benefit. With a mindblind mother, who does not understand that you may not know yet or that you can change your mind, you learn early: be predictable, she cannot handle anything else. As a result, I had to step into the role of a barbie doll. Something for her to play with, to do things she can understand and hide what she cannot. Something similar but much more toxic holds for my father. You must be at his service. His insecurities may never be touched. You are less than him and not entitled to emotions. I don’t know what I myself really want. I now understand why that is the case. A mentally ill parent cannot handle anything that is uncomfortable for them and will have outbursts or meltdowns if the child acts in any way that they can’t handle. It’s impossible to learn the process of decision making when the other person cannot handle you changing your mind. It kills spontaneity. Not having access to spontaneity, stubbornness, in short being denied access to self-direction will alienate you from yourself. Saying ‘no’ is just one part of this. But I think the most important one.

I find saying ‘no’ one of the most difficult things there is. I’m not talking about the ‘do you want a cup of tea’ kind of situations. I am talking about any situation where I have a choice. Which is, well, all the fucking time. I become inauthentic. Stopping yourself from being inauthentic is a form of saying ‘no’.

The thing I didn’t understand for a long time is that the act of saying ‘no’ helps you figure out what you want. Not the other way around. As you exercise your choices, you figure out what suits you best. Trying things out is the only road to discovery.

When you start to know yourself, you start to experience moments of “Of course I feel like this now, that makes sense”. Your story starts to make sense.

Empathy is when the stories match

I want to say: Certain people have no empathy.

And I think that for a ‘first thought’ this would suffice very well, for a conversation that I have with myself inside my own head. I understand what I mean by it. And maybe some people would nod and say that they agree. Maybe you know someone who you want to label as ‘not having empathy’. But it’s not accurate or precise at all. For starters, some people very quickly retort “I do have empathy, it’s you who doesn’t!”. They would argue that it’s not very nice to accuse someone of not having empathy and therefore the one who makes this accusation it is not empathetic. On the other hand, turning it around as an accusation isn’t very empathetic either, so that won’t bring us anywhere. It would be funny if it wasn’t so exasperating.

“First Thoughts are the everyday thoughts. Everyone has those. Second Thoughts are the thoughts you think about the way you think. People who enjoy thinking have those. Third Thoughts are thoughts that watch the world and think all by themselves. They’re rare, and often troublesome. Listening to them is part of witchcraft.”

Terry Pratchett, A Hat Full of Sky

To make any headway in deciding if a person is empathetic or not, we need to make sure that we know exactly what empathy is. Here’s what Wikipedia has to say on the matter.

Empathy is the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from within their frame of reference, that is, the capacity to place oneself in another’s position.


Let’s break that down.

First of all, empathy is a capacity. In other words, a skill. So far so good.

Secondly, the person who is capable of empathy, is capable to understand or feel what another person is experiencing.

Wait, stop right there. This is the most important bit. If someone is empathetic, they understand or feel what another person is experiencing.

Says who?

That’s a serious question. Who decides whether a person is empathetic? Can I claim to be empathetic? What proof do I have of that? I could list some names of people who may back me up when I claim to be empathetic, but does that mean you now have a guarantee that I will be empathetic towards you?

Is it something you can measure in a laboratory? Can I give you a piece of paper and ask you to empathize with a fictional character. If you then answer all the questions about this fictional character correctly, does that give me any guarantee that you will be able to empathize with me, in every and any situation in which I would interact with you?

Of course not. Don’t be ridiculous. There is no such thing as being empathetic or having empathy. Objective empathy does not exist and nobody is empathetic in every single situation. You can’t measure it. Subjective experience isn’t measurable (it’s what trips up the psychology field over and over again). You can’t weigh it. You can’t invoke it like a magic incantation with 100% guarantee of success, no matter who you subject it to.

Empathy is, first of all, a subjective capacity. Because it is defined as the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing, it is the ‘other’ who has the only and final say in what they are experiencing.

Obviously, our way of communicating (with verbal and nonverbal communication) comes nowhere near telepathy. And so the ‘sender’, the one who tries to be empathetic, derives from the other person’s words and nonverbal cues an internal mental state of the other. Then, the ‘sender’ chooses: Do I act? If so, how? The sender translates their subjective image of the other person’s (again) subjective experience into an action or inaction that (s)he things is the ‘right’ thing to do. The receiver of this action or inaction then either feels understood, or they do not.

If they do not, not all is lost. The receiver can return information. They can reply. Or not. The reply can achieve all sorts of things. The sender understands that their mental map of the other person is correct, or they understand that it is not. Or the sender wrongfully concludes that their mental map is correct. Or they wrongfully conclude that their mental map is wrong. Every interaction and conclusion brings with it a chance to achieve mutual understanding. I believe that is what empathy is. Not a capacity, but a state that can be reached.

Empathy as a state and trust

Empathy is a state you reach often enough for both parties to have a sense of consistency in the reciprocity. To perceive the other person as empathetic requires consistency in their relating to you. You start to trust that when you have a conversation, you will more often than not reach a state where both of you feel that you’ve grasped the other’s point of view.

It is the skill, or experience, to reach a state of mutual empathetic experience. You need the skill to keep going when you hit a rough patch. But you also need to know when you are not the right person for the job. You need to know what you don’t know about the other person’s subjective experience, to be empathetic. Sentences like “Correct me if I’m wrong” or clarifying questions, summarizing what you think the other person has told you and talking about your communication are crucial.

If you are not experienced by other people as empathetic, it means that in the contexts in which the other person experiences you, you have too often failed to navigate this terrain together with them. You keep ending up in a totally different place than them. And maybe you even insist that they should be joining you. It’s a very common thing of many people to do: They tell other people how they should feel. If you don’t smile, you’re told to smile more often. The person who says it probably believes themselves to be empathetic. Smiling is good, I want the other person to smile, so I want something good for them, therefore I am empathetic. Hurrrk

Empathy is having the sense that you are both talking about the same thing.

You therefore need to be able to sense the other person’s inner states, from their verbal and nonverbal signals.

If you have the sense that you are, you still could not be empathetic. There are people who have no clue what other people experience inside their own mind. And because they are limited at recognizing their conversation partner’s point of view, they cannot recognize that their mental map of that other person is wrong. They conclude that there is nothing amiss. When the other person, after quite a long time, vehemently objects, they are surprised, shocked even.

You do not decide if you are empathetic. The listener decides.

You decide whether they are empathetic towards you. And they decide whether you are empathetic to them.

High and low empathetic capacity

You don’t know this if you haven’t experienced it to its extreme: people vastly differ in their capacity for empathy. People who are low in empathy lack in at least one of the following areas:

  • Recognizing whether they have the capacity to relate to another person in the situation that occurs (they think they are but they are not)
  • Understanding the emotional terrain of the other person (they build a wrong mental map)
  • Correcting their understanding of the other person’s emotional terrain (they fail to take in new information and keep working from wrong assumptions, sometimes even insisting that they understand the other person when their behavior indicates otherwise)
  • Describing their own emotional terrain (they never describe their inner mental map, do so inaccurately or purposefully deceive the other person about their own inner state, making the other relate to a false representation)
  • Recognizing whether the other person understands their emotional terrain
  • Automatic syncing of emotional states (they display inappropriate emotions, for example exuberance at a funeral)

Communicating with someone who has lower empathy than you is very unnerving. You will continuously be confronted with things that feel off. You may notice that they do not perceive the same things as you do. Once you’ve been on the receiving end of that, I think one thing stays with you: the least empathetic of two people, is the last to know it, if at all..

There is a special exception, and that’s the people who are very good at navigating other people’s emotional terrain but who do not sync and who lie about their own inner state. They are difficult to spot.

person wearing white and blue socks

Empathy is about four separate mental states: your own, theirs, your map of theirs and their map of yours. A lack of empathy in a single conversation is when the maps don’t match. A lack of empathy in a person is when most of the time no state of empathy is reached.

Nobody is perfectly empathetic all the time. But you can practice it. By asking questions. Questions where you check whether you’ve understood correctly. Questions that often start with a statement of uncertainty and an invitation to explore the terrain together.

When you grew up in a family where nobody ever synced up, it will take time and patience. I don’t know how to do it very well yet either. But I think this discovery helped me understand better to recognize what’s going on when empathy is lacking. You have to know what’s missing before you can start plugging that hole.

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