One definition of empathy reads: “The feeling that you understand and share another person’s experiences and emotions: the ability to share someone else’s feelings.” (Merriam-Webster).
While I don’t have a huge problem with the first part of the definition I find it questionable as to the degree that you can understand the feelings of someone who is experiencing something which you have never encountered. That’s why we instruct health care workers, for example, not to tell cancer patients that they understand what they are going through. The intention behind this comment is undoubtedly positive, but generally serves to infuriate those on the receiving end who frequently ask, “Oh, and when did you have cancer?” I certainly do question the second part though – that is, to “share” someone else’s’ feelings. How can (or should) you share feelings that you would not experience if a similar event happened to you?
A friend of mine a number of years ago, told me she had to cancel a dinner engagement we had made because a very good friend of hers was in despair after her boy friend dumped her and she was suicidal. I commented to her that perhaps she could tell her friend that she was killing the wrong person. Not particularly empathic I know. Did I understand that she was upset, distraught, and sad? Of course. Have I responded the same way in situations where someone dumped me? Well, upset? Sure. Suicidal? Not likely. More like homicidal I’m afraid.
This is similar to the problems (intellectual) I had with the Holmes-Rahe stress inventory which allotted a number to a variety of stressful events, and predicted that when the total reached a certain number you were liable to experience some major adverse health event. The problem lies in the fact that what might be a stressful event for one person may signal the end of stress for someone else – divorce being a good example, or death of a parent who is suffering from a very painful, terminal illness and you are the sole caretaker.
This being said, I am NOT advocating a selfish existence where you don’t care how your actions impact others, and sail through life oblivious or uncaring to the sufferings and problems of others. But you can care about others without self-referencing everything that happens. You know, the old “how would you feel if that happened to you?” approach.
I just finished a book by a former (hopefully, although I have my doubts) drug addict called Passport to Hell. She recounts her time in a Spanish prison and in British prisons (for what seems to be a total of about 5 years or so although her original sentence was for 10 years) for allegedly trafficking in drugs. She claimed that she was set up by the Portuguese (In Brazil) and Spanish authorities, and that she had no idea that her “male companion” was trafficking in drugs. During her time previous to this event, she was a massive addict (although she took care to assure the reader that she stayed away from the destructive drugs such as crack or heroin), appeared to do nothing with her life except go to Raves, ingest a variety of drugs and alcohol, and desert her family when her father was dying of cancer because she loved him so much and couldn’t bear to see him in pain. She was the victim of bad luck throughout her life, and just often found herself in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Honestly? If I had any empathy at all it was for her poor mother who kept trying to rescue her, set up bail money, and travelled over to Spain several times (they lived in Britain) to visit her.
I don’t think that practicing or demonstrating empathy to sociopaths or to narcissists is a good strategy at all, frankly. It confirms then in their pathology and puts you at risk.
So perhaps a better definition of empathy would be: “The ability to step into the shoes of another person, aiming to understand their feelings and perspectives, and to use that understanding to guide our actions”. But whatever we do, let’s not pretend that all feelings need to be emphasized with – some need to be changed.