Skyler Simpkins ’23
We are raised in a fervent anti-bullying culture. In our primary education, we were constantly told to walk in another person’s shoes to better understand their situation. This colloquial phrase is only a personification of empathy, and it is entirely misleading. Walking in another person’s shoes? That is an actionable step each of us could take, but this is the misleading part of the empathy equation: how easy is it to walk in these shoes?
Being able to walk in another’s shoes symbolically requires much more than a baseline knowledge of that person’s situation. In fact, it requires our mental processes to be an exact match. It not only requires us to act the same but to think the same. With this in mind, I ask you the question: is it really possible to walk in another person’s shoes?
The practice of empathy would not be a problem if you believe that everyone thinks the same, and while the biological processes are the same, everyone understands and analyzes their reality differently. By utilizing empathy, you are assuming a collective mental state, which harms much more than it helps. You are essentially deindividuating someone’s experience and placing it in a concoction of a singular societal mind. The person you are “helping” has their personal experience stolen from them so someone else can act as if they understand. We have to face the truth that none of us are capable of truly understanding the mental torment another person bears.
Some might argue that collective therapy is much better than individual monologue, but I have to disagree. How can it be better to make someone feel as if their situation is normal and experienced by many people? A much more respectable therapeutic service would be to listen and provide support, not similarity. “I know what you have been going through” is an utter lie, and it makes the person feel that they are bringing unnecessary attention to a minor problem. Instead of espousing empathetic practices, we should honor the significance of problems. At the end of the day every person has a different definition and understanding of significance. We must stop being ignorant and thinking that we can act without self-interest and perfectly understand how another person feels.
All the proponents of altruism must be writhing their teeth at this accusation, but there is no human activity completely bare of self-interest. Even when we donate to charity, we do so with knowledge of the positive light it will shine upon us – or we do so to soothe some inner-struggle about the lack of our generative endowments to society. When we do something deemed suitable for the general community, we will only do so if this donation lacks adverse effects on our situation. We are not pure and utterly devoted to society over our bodily possessions. This self-interest drips into every crevice of life and, thus, reveals itself when we employ empathetic communication.
What role does self-interest play in empathy? For one, by forcing ourselves into conformity with another person’s unique situation, we are subconsciously gaining some pity for ourselves. When we are deeply immersed in another person’s personal situation, we begin to conjure up feelings of despair for ourselves. The entire vehicle of empathy relies on you accepting a false reality, feeling bad for your pseudo-reality, and then taking this feeling and applying it to someone actually grappling with the situation. Through this transmuted process, we lose some sympathy for the individual we are listening to and replace it with personal pity and self-righteousness. We are doing a good thing, right? We are listening to a person with a challenging circumstance, and we convince ourselves that this deserves an award – Signaling our self-righteousness.
Another way self-interest appears in empathy is how we view the outcome. When some people use empathy, there is a self-desired ending. They want the conversation to go in their self-guided direction. When it does not, they will be upset with the other person. This is a more uncommon occurrence but something that happens more frequently in informal talking sessions. The self-interest of an individual will guide the conversation into getting another person to admit something. This is a methodology for learning a specific detail or achieving a particular result which, consequently, is bathed in personal preference. In this scenario, the individual sharing their situation is robbed of their unique experience and their autonomy in figuring a solution.
What is a solution to this situation? How do you converse with someone about intimate details without infusing self-interest into the conversation? This is a much more complex process than anyone could imagine. It has continuously been drilled into our minds that empathy is good and something with which everyone should be skilled. To combat self-interest masked behind the practice of empathy we must reject what has been ingrained in our social, behavioral framework. It will take strength to admit that no one can truly understand you. Once you successfully harmonize your mindset behind the idea that you are a unique individual incapable of being fully understood, it will become evident that honoring the individuality of perspective and situation is a much better therapeutic practice than the transmuting of experience.
Instead of telling someone that you understand what they are going through, tell them that you have no idea what they are experiencing but would love to listen. Do not jump to solutions or search for answers to intimate questions; listen and realize the beauty masked in our different understandings of reality and philosophical concepts. There is an elegance to individual mindsets that vary so intricately, and in the removal of empathy from our social behaviors we can observe this elegance firsthand. It is tough to grapple with the fact that no one will hold the comprehensive ability to understand all of you, but it is a gift. You are unique; you can only understand yourself. Only you have the map for your mind’s journey through reality and metaphysical conceptions.
In the end, no one can do for you what you can do for yourself.