The concept of empathy is often praised but rarely discussed. What should we mean by empathy?
A dictionary definition has it that empathy is “the feeling that you understand and share another person’s experiences and emotions : the ability to share someone else’s feelings”. However, I find this definition very problematic. It doesn’t really make any distinction between ACTUAL understanding and deluding yourself into believing that you understand.
It treats empathy as an inherent trait, something that you either have or doesn’t have. I don’t think it works that way. You don’t understand everyone equally. Instead, you understand different people differently well, and a big factor here is how much you work on it. Actual empathy is a relationship. Something that exists between people rather than within them.
Imagining how the other person feels should not count as actual empathy. It is merely the middle step between listening to their experience and then re-checking that you got it right. Empathy in any meaningful sense of the word requires a lot of communication. Mutual communication.
Just like power is a dynamic between people rather than something that a person inherently have or lack, empathy is a dynamic between people. Beware of self-proclaimed empaths who feel entitled to tell you or others what YOUR true feelings are.
Each person have their own internal realities. We are connected to each other by the physical and social realities between us. At best, empathy is about communication. At worst, “empathy” is about imposing your own fantasies on other people. Either way, empathy is about building a representation of another person’s internal reality within your own internal reality. Are you building this representation TOGETHER with the actual other person, making a mutual effort to explore their actual feelings? Or are you simply doing your own thing, pretending to yourself an others that this private fantasy of yours is actually true for the other person as well?
Don’t do that. Don’t try to impose your fantasies about other people’s feelings and needs on them, pretending that it is theirs. Listen to them instead. Try to understand each other. Together.