A Deconstruction of Empathy: Innate or Acquired?
Empathy is a deeply challenging thing. It serves as a form of considerate objectivity, wherein the pursuit isn’t actually liking or approving of a thing, but rather understanding it to a point of respecting it — all while supplanting your ego in the process.
However, most of us don’t naturally function that way — at all.
For that reason, my hypothesis around empathy is that it actually is more of an acquired skill than an innate state of mind.
The misconstrued concept of empathy is much like the concept of wisdom or enlightenment. The act of being empathetic doesn’t make you any more an empath than employing momentary wisdom makes you wise, or being incisively introspective makes you enlightened.
The work of empathy in its rawest form is never truly done. There will always be another individual with whom you don’t agree with, fundamentally approve of, or relate to — all for completely different reasons. I think we err in thinking of empathy as a natural, static state of thought —the classic “I’m a natural empath” statement, being a great example.
But, are you?
Do you naturally understand the plights and perspectives of all people from all backgrounds at all times, with no internal judgments or criticisms accompanying those empathetic thoughts? Would you treat a stranger as you would a family member or friend in a time of need every time?
Maybe so, but — for the sake of my theory — let’s scrutinize that idea with the goal of building a more actionable, realistic perspective on empathy as a whole.
Reason #1: Empathy is Arguably More of a Thought than a Feeling
There are many popular tropes and projected ideas around empathy, and none of them seem to support the sentiment that empathy is a thing that requires exertion. As beings to which judgment comes as naturally as the need to breathe, I think it is both reasonable and productive to incorporate our natural indulgence of the self into the application of empathy.
Our inclination to compare ourselves to others and to develop implicit biases about those who differ from us is my strongest argument for empathy as a thing you have to try at. It isn't inherently negative that we segment our thinking in such a way that we automatically jump to certain conclusions about people, and I’ll never attempt to preach against that. I just think it is important to acknowledge reality for what it is if you seek a better way to navigate and engage with it.
In my purview, the solution to lacking empathy is to acknowledge the why of it. We form our tribes and mistake empathy as caring for or relating to the struggles of those most like us. For that reason, we’ve also formed this sub-school of thought around empathy as naturally occurring, and that anything that doesn’t come naturally shouldn’t be acknowledged.
Sure there are people who, perhaps, are chemically and psychologically more predisposed to empathetic thought than others, but let’s assume I’m speaking to the perception of an average neurotypical individual. For those of us who operate within a common spectrum of emotions, empathy is developed over time. We usually first learn about it from interactions with immediate loved ones, then eventually learn more from whomever we’re most proximal to as we age. This method of learning, however, usually hits a ceiling once we reach adult age, as we no longer feel obligated or have the bandwidth to consider the thoughts and experiences of everyone at all times. This is where I believe empathy as a skill is born, as we all will cross a threshold where the minimization of a person’s experiences to self-preserve is much easier than venturing to, at the very least, respect the validity of an alternative perspective.
Empathy isn’t a feeling; it is a conscious series of thoughts that separate your personal thoughts from the objective understanding that people will always be different. Most challenging to remember, it seems, is the notion that the difference between you and them doesn’t elevate or diminish their intrinsic worth. As with love, compassion, or your self-concept, empathy is a lifetime of work.
Reason #2: Empathy Can be Burdensome
To build upon the idea of empathy in its truest form as a skill set, let’s address the elephant in the room: Just because you think it doesn’t mean you feel it — nor do you have to.
There seems to be an unspoken association of empathy with feelings of sympathy or caring. That school of thought is somewhat unreasonable, as it leaves little room for the nature of people. We’re aren’t intrinsically malicious creatures, but I believe empathy actually becomes more effective and more easily usable on a wider scale when the burden of using it is openly acknowledged.
Being empathetic can be deeply frustrating, and sometimes ends in a net-negative outcome. No one ever seems to acknowledge this fact, though. Idealized, romanticized ideas of what humans should be historically comes from the inability or refusal to look at the entire picture as grey as opposed to black and white, and this conundrum is no different.
The way to improve the employability of empathy is to understand that understanding a thing doesn’t need to mean you like it or even really understand it. Empathetic understanding, more often than not, refers to the final conclusion that you won’t or don’t understand it, but aren’t better or worse for it, and thus will still treat the person or situation with dignity.
Acknowledging what others experience isn’t really about relating to them, because that still stems from an egoist view of people and the world. It think that is another big misconception. Empathy is about letting go of yourself, not of trying to find ways to fit another individual to your limited perception of them, just to justify fair treatment. It’s about getting out of your own way, and operating more efficiently and synergetically with the world around you. This brings me to the final topic in my theory.
Reason #3: Empathy is at Its Best When Pragmatic
It may not appear as such, but there is some merit to removing the emotion from some of the physically uncontrollable ideas that underly the human experience. Not to discount them, of course, but to demystify them in such a way that they serve a productive purpose.
The problem of this usually, however, is that we all typically only receive one version of an idea. A version that best serves ourselves and some of our immediate environment. I’ve done my best (and still am working) to shift away from an ego-centric use-case for empathy, where what we personally feel drives how much dignity to impute to others.
Think about the last time you argued with someone (online or in-person). Think the last time you thought someone “deserved” to be told what’s what by you. Think about the last time you let comparative suffrage or (or success) impact you to the point of inaction or bitterness. Think about the last time you blew a substantial chunk of time being frustrated about a thing or person because of the trivial fact that you don’t understand or agree with them. Think about the last time mere conjecture or assumption ruled your day.
What good did any of it actually do you? Very little, I would surmise. How easy was it to dehumanize a person when in that state of mind? Relatively easy, I’d guess. And yet, I’m sure you would still consider yourself to be an empathetic person. This is the root of my desire to develop a better perspective on this topic.
I think (and you would likely agree) I’ve blathered enough on this subject. The point here is to raise new questions about widely accepted ideas, with the hope to democratize access to them. Very rarely is any school of thought so esoteric that it can’t be understood; it just needs to be communicated differently.
So, to summarize this thought process, I would say:
- Empathy is grey; it doesn’t take on a particular form and can mean something different between each person and situation you’re faced with.
- Empathy can emotionally feel like a net-negative because it doesn’t always make you feel good; nor should it. If you don’t feel challenged by the notion to empathize with others, there’s a chance you aren’t as empathetic as you think.
- Honesty is the best policy when it comes to empathy. You don’t need to present as an “empath” or some other idealized version of the truth. My theory is we actually would understand and give more once empathy stops being a tool for interpersonal branding.
- The more honest you are about your understanding of others, the more efficient and effective you’ll be when interacting with them.
- Empathy is static at a conceptual level, but is ongoing in practice. If you can remember that simple idea, it will be much easier to lean into the inevitable, unfamiliar interpersonal scenarios you’ll run into throughout your life.
Naturally, I don’t have all of the answers here. I’m merely speaking from the privileged position of having served and worked across many communities in the U.S. I found that we all have a lot of core beliefs in common, but we allow the little things to come between us because those seemingly little things are huge when we’ve never lived outside of our social bubbles.
These bubbles aren’t inherently negative or even unproductive in some respects, but they can objectively limit our exposure to experiences that could make us more well-rounded and understanding of the fact that our way of living is one way of millions. Of course, we’re all aware of this, but as the age-old phrase goes —actions speak louder than words. And if we’re going to put idealistic phrases like this to action, it’s going to take some practical effort. Herein lies the primary argument underlying the case for empathy as a skill set.
To those of you who read to the end—I appreciate you, and would love to hear your perspective on this.
Otherwise, until next time!