Are we really empathetic?

Empathy : |ˈɛmpəθi| [noun]
The ability to understand and share the feelings of another.

Yesterday I was speaking to a woman I know who is an Occupational Therapist that works with adult and child clients. We were having an ordinary conversation about her day and my own. She then told me that during the day one of her clients had died. He was a boy. Eleven years old.

I froze.

I felt a slight twinge of panic, and a split second later said
“Oh, I’m so sorry to hear that!” and began to calm down.

It was as if i had looked up my empathetic behaviour file in my brain.
I said those words as if reading from an internal script complete with stage directions. I continued to sympathise with her and said “Wow, and he was so young.” I was appearing empathetic and genuinely trying to be. But in the fore-front of my mind i was on the defensive. I was making sure that i would be seen as empathetic instead of channeling my energy towards real empathy. Is this acceptable if there appears to be no surface difference in the behaviour we reciprocate to people? I think it isn’t acceptable. What bothers me is that my main priority was appearing to be empathetic and SHOW my empathy rather than primarily simply trying to possess it and co-feel with the woman. I would have been fine with using most of my energy on empathy and the lesser portion of it on communicating my feeling toward the other person. But that’s not what happened. I think there’s a fine line between having true empathy and simply appearing to show it. However, we are able to sense our motivations if we really look inside ourselves.

How well do we know ourselves?

When this situation comes up are we more concerned with our image than what is actually real inside of us?

Is it more loving to be honest about how we feel about other’s concerns or to be polite and pretend to be concerned about them when really we are not?

Where is the line of balance between honesty and good behaviour?

These are the questions I find myself thinking about when Ithink about empathy. They orbit around a central question : “Should I show people I am a good person or simply be one and not care how it looks?” Honestly on different days I have different answers.

From this point forward I want to be more focused on BEING empathetic and not just appearing to show it. I’m not sure how this is to be done. Perhaps it may be to go on the offensive and ask people how they are. Find out about what people are concerned about before they tell me on their own. Again, i cannot decipher if this is motivated from a desire to share another’s feelings or to appear to be someone who share’s another feelings. I’m not sure what survival instinct is at play here.

I wonder if you’re reading this and can relate to the internal dialogue I am describing here. How have you dealt with thoughts like these?

Let me know.

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3 Comments

  1. I try to be as authentic as possible with my reactions and sometimes there not genuinely long enough empathy in the situation, so I try to remain calm and do my best to respond in an empathetic way while not beating myself up too much on not reacting long enough,

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  2. Hi Andy! I really liked your post, I do relate to this internal dialogue you were talking about. While I was reading it, I recalled a situation which took place about a year ago which popped into my mind. So, the context is that it was the birthday of someone important to me and I wanted to make a gift a bit more personal, so instead of just buying something I decided to write a poem. The thing is, after finishing it, I started internally debating with myself. I noticed that while writing, I was thinking whether he fitted with the nice attributes instead of thinking of him and letting those attributes pop up. To clarify, I was asking myself: Is he funny? (Yes/No) Instead of just thinking of him and remembering how charismatic he is. Sounds weird, can’t tell if I’m managing to get the point through. Anyway, to sum it up. The question is whether the poem is actually authentic and sincere if I fit the person in the poem instead of making a poem fit for the person.

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