Empathy Fail

February 18, 2013

Empathy Fail

There is a popular myth that autistics lack empathy. I think most parents of autistic children (and autistics themselves when asked) recognize that as false. What I think is more fair to say is that empathy can be hard, hard for anyone. And if I'm to teach my kids how to empathize with their peers, I should know how myself, right? Well, I've been doing empathy wrong. I always thought that the key to understanding what someone was feeling was to “put yourself in his shoes.” And it's certainly a start, but let's call that “the gateway drug to empathy”. Empathizing means trying to understand what someone’s feeling, and why they feel that way. When you’re in an argument with someone and you tell that person they’re wrong to be angry with you, that is the first sign that you’re not empathizing. Invalidating what someone is feeling, when you’re not the one feeling it? Really, it doesn’t get any easier to diagnose than that. I had an unpleasant encounter online that forced me to step back and re-evaluate my understanding of…understanding. It wasn't enough to meet halfway. I needed to go further. But I didn't understand that at first, because I was upset and looking at it the wrong way. Empathy is something that I think you need to exercise constantly, but where it's most critical is where it's hardest to dispassionately use: in an argument. Admit that the other person has a right to his emotions. So I think the first step in really empathizing is to recognize that whatever the other person is feeling, however strange or inappropriate it may seem to you right now, is valid. And that’s hard. That’s really hard, because recognizing that someone’s rage (or sorrow, or whatever) over something you said when you didn't intend for “rage” to result means having to confront yourself with the idea that possibly the fault is yours. When you “mean well” it can be humbling and depressing to acknowledge that what you said (perhaps insensitively) did harm instead. If you can admit that there must be a reason why this person is so bent out of shape, then empathizing is just the detective work of trying to figure out the “why” behind it. This is almost invariably where I fail. Have you ever had someone ask you, “Well how would you feel if (insert transgression here)?” It’s the question parents sometimes ask their kids when they’re trying to teach them to understand why their friend got mad about something while they were playing. But it doesn't work any more completely to answer that “why” question than the shoe analogy does, because it’s fundamentally flawed. In both cases you are putting your self into the equation and that screws it all up. Remove your ego from your empathy calculations. Let’s say I walk into a bar. There’s an attractive young lady sitting at bar and I approach her. I proposition her, she throws her drink in my face and storms off. Maybe later, over indignant conversation with friends one of them says, “Well how would you feel if some strange woman you’d never seen or spoken to came up to you and propositioned you while you were sitting alone in a bar?” [caption id="attachment_2633" align="alignnone" width="635"]empathy fail nice lobes...[/caption] And where this whole thing collapses into uselessness is…I answer “I’d love it. I’d feel flattered. I’d feel pretty.” Because that’s how I’d feel, dismissing the point that I’m not actually a woman, that a strange man is approaching in a bar and that she’d probably feel threatened because I’m a stranger and bigger than she is and she’s alone, that I’m propositioning her like she’s the town slut, that I apparently have no interest in getting to know her, that I’m treating it all like it’s a joke, that I seem to feel “entitled” to just open every conversation with a come on without any thought to how any of that might make her feel…and the drink to the face starts to make more sense. I’ve never had to experience things from that framework. It’s hard to try to build this reference around an experience to frame it the way another person might be experiencing it. When I put myself in her shoes I’m still just a guy wearing women’s shoes (figuratively speaking). Each life experience, each choice, each accident, or mistaken step she took in those shoes directed her at long last to that figurative bar stool in front of you. And you cannot ever perfectly recreate that path, cannot know the turns she took, the advances she fought off, the trusts betrayed by “guys like you”, the insecurity of sitting in a bar alone after who knows what. [caption id="attachment_2634" align="alignnone" width="347"]empathy fail put yourself in her shoes...[/caption] But perhaps you can understand it better than by swapping shoes. Maybe at the very least you should look at yourself through her eyes. That’s hard, because using the bar example, what would you see? Maybe you’d see an entitled sexist bully who thinks the results of his offer are a foregone conclusion. Maybe that’d piss you off. Meet more than halfway. If you've already recognized the validity of the other person’s emotional response, and you've tried to reframe the shared experience by attempting to see your actions through the other person’s eyes, perhaps you can step down from your pillar of smug superiority and just say you’re sorry. Admit that you didn’t understand. Admit that you messed up. You can’t control the other person’s response. You can’t make someone accept your apology, or believe the sincerity of it, but that’s not really the point. The point is empathy. The point is understanding. Empathizing doesn’t mean admitting you’re wrong. I don’t think that empathizing necessarily means that you have to change anything. I don’t think it means that you are always wrong and the other person is always right. It just means instead of dismissing the other person’s emotional response, you do the hard work of trying to understand it before deciding. At the end of the day you had an emotional response too. And your response is every bit as valid as the other person’s. It is shaped by the circuitous path of your own experiences just as his was. And you can’t both be wrong. Or maybe you can. But... You can only control your own response. Whether you agree to disagree, declare war, or part best of friends, the only thing you can control is your own response. The fact that you’re even willing to attempt the hard work of empathizing with someone you’re in an argument with is telling. It doesn't mean you’re the “good guy” necessarily, but at least it means you’re trying to do the right thing. If gaps to peace cannot be bridged even with you building it “more than halfway”, then at least you did what you could. You controlled what you could control. You made the effort. You might have failed to win the argument, but at least you won't have failed at empathizing.



Leave a comment

Comments will be approved before showing up.