There's No Such Thing As Empathy

Does empathy exist? Can we really ever truly be empathetic towards another? Various search results for the definition of empathy bring up things such as, “the feeling that you understand and share another person’s experiences and emotions,” “the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from within the other person’s frame of reference,” and “the psychological identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.”

Based on these things, I’m not sure we can ever be 100% empathetic, and I’m also not sure that’s such a terrible thing to admit. I think we can strive towards it, and I think we should, but I think we might need to dial back on the obsession with empathy and realize it might always be out of reach. 

Who we are, the opinions we hold, and the things we believe to be true are merely a collection of all of our life experiences. The music we listen to and the music we’ve heard in the past, the books we’ve read, the museums we’ve visited, the sermons we’ve heard (or the ones we haven’t), the jobs we’ve held, the education we’ve had, the places we’ve traveled, the parents that raised us (or the ones that didn’t). It’s an intricately woven web of identification, and I just don’t think we can rid ourselves of that web in order to truly understand what another person is experiencing from within their “frame of reference.” 

It’s not terrible to admit that, either. It’s just the truth. To lie to ourselves and think we are capable of stripping away a lifetime of experiences in order to identify with another person’s sorrow or joy or horror or confusion is wrong. We know no other way to exist besides the way we do now. If you take one piece of the puzzle out, we are a different person. If you add another piece, again, a different person arises. 

It’s a beautiful thought to think we can see things from someone else’s point of view and to feel like we can identify with what someone is going through, but at best, we are merely projecting our own selves into someone else’s situation, which is not empathy, but an attempt. 

I’m not saying we should stop striving towards it. I am a huge proponent of empathetic efforts, but I think we need to be honest with ourselves and realize that even with the best of intentions, we aren’t seeing things from another person’s perspective really ever. 

What we really mean when we say, “I know how you feel,” is, “I know how I felt when a similar thing happened to me.” If empathy is a “ psychological identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another,” then I dare say it’s a beautiful thing to reach for but it will forever be just a reach. 

It’s okay, people. You don’t have to freak out. There is just no way we can psychologically put aside all of the things that make us who we are in order to vicariously experience the feelings, thoughts or attitudes of another. And that’s fine. 

Again, I’m not suggesting we scrap the whole thing. I’m suggesting we stop pretending like we get it, because we don’t, and we can’t. 

If 100% empathy were possible, if we really, truly could see things from another person’s frame of reference, this would eradicate all political arguments, all disagreements over music taste, and all disputes ever over right and wrong, because we would see that right and wrong are just constructed concepts from that intricately woven web of identification. 

If total empathy were possible, there would never be tense feelings of disagreement, because we would immediately be able to drop the things we believed and held close and be able to absorb a different lifetime of experiences and set of beliefs. 

That sounds borderline psychotic to me. 

By all means, let’s keep empathy the goal, but let’s not let this goal (and more so, the fear of admitting it’s not possible) keep us naively believing we “know how you feel” when we really don’t.