The Structure of Empathy

If there’s any kind of magic in this world it must be in the attempt of understanding someone sharing something. I know, it’s almost impossible to succeed, but who cares really? The answer must be in the attempt.
― Richard Linklater, Before Sunrise: A Film

After finishing this beautiful article by Leslie Jamison at a coffee shop on a late Friday afternoon, I wanted to stand up and tell everyone in the room to read it, to read it immediately. It begged to be shared. And not just because the writing was so engaging (I read it during rehearsal breaks, while eating breakfast, before and after practice sessions, and then I thought about it in all the moments between), but because its message changed my outlook on a number of levels. Jamison describes aspects of empathy I’d never considered before, and I found myself challenged to view different situations through this multi-faceted empathetic lens.

Jamison writes, “Empathy is always perched precariously between gift and invasion,” and I often feel this to be true. Prior to reading this article, I had believed that the majority of empathy lay in simply listening to the other person and attempting to understand the situation. But I realize now that this is impossible. Perhaps the “gift” is in listening, but empathy also runs the risk of invasion as it is also not necessarily the attempt to come as close as possible to understanding. The difficulty in empathy lies in acknowledging that one can never fully understand another person’s situation.

So what can we do in light of this paradox? We try. And we turn empathy on its head in an effort to understand it better, as Jamison did.

We care because we expect care in return. It’s human nature, and it’s not a bad thing. It only becomes problematic when tabs are taken and expectations are set: an arm for an arm, a traded favour for another. Risky business, this, and I can think of five different situations where empathy runs that fine line:

  1. Frustrations: With Others and With Yourself

“I needed his empathy not just to comprehend the emotions I was describing, but to help me discover which emotions were actually there… [His] calmness offered assurance rather than empathy, or maybe assurance was evidence of empathy, insofar as he understood that assurance, not identification, was what I needed most.”  ~ Jamison

In this exists the impossibility of empathy, and the importance of it. I can listen, and I can try to understand, but perhaps a great deal of empathy is guiding and uncovering emotion in a way that the other person cannot yet. Within this, the possibility of better understanding my own emotions also exists. I recognized how important it is to embrace the entire spectrum of emotions, but not to let the negative ones control my outlook. It has taken me awhile to realize that it’s okay to be sad, it’s okay to be angry, and that I have a right to my feelings. I’m still struggling with this. But, I believe that a large part of empathy is knowing that others have a right to their feelings too.

  1. Micro-aggressions

“He meant that feeling something was never simply a state of submission but always, also, a process of construction.”  ~ Jamison

As a third generation Asian-American, there are aspects of my identity that I still don’t completely know how best to embrace. There are times when I forget that how I perceive myself can be very different than how I am perceived by others.

I’ve become more used to certain micro-aggressions, but then something will happen that will throw me for a loop. When traveling, I was greeted by Kon’nichiwa, nín hǎo, fake-bowed to in the streets. It was used in an insulting way. It was also sometimes used in a genuine “I-want-to-know-more-about-your-culture” way.

I’ve been mistaken for Japanese, Vietnamese, half-Asian, even Indian. In fact, Chinese is often the last guess. Just last month, I was in a Walmart in Florida picking out food for dinner with friends, and one of the men nearby asked me where I was from.

“Oh, Colorado,” I responded, off-handedly.

“No, no,” he insisted. “Where are you really from?”

“Why don’t you guess,” I laughed. “I’m adding to my list of ethnicities. The last person who asked me thought I was from Nepal.”

My friends were duly outraged afterwards. “I can’t believe he asked you that,” one said to me later.

“It’s okay. I’ve gotten used to it,” I shrugged. “I’m actually glad for it now, to be honest. I hope it helps me better understand others who might face the same thing.”  

I think this goes to show that we are all different and unique and beautiful in our own ways, that our origins hold significance and influence, but they should not fully dictate who we are and what we stand for, fight for, believe in – this, I believe, is for each of us to decide individually.  

  1. Relationships

“It’s exhausting to keep tabs on how much someone is feeling for you. It can make you forget that they feel too…That was the double blade of how I felt about anything that hurt: I wanted someone else to feel it with me, and I also wanted it entirely for myself.”   ~ Jamison

This one is the hardest for me. Relationships are difficult, messy, and complicated. They can also be wonderful, fulfilling, and rewarding. To me, they precisely run that fine line between gift and invasion. Empathy is a quality that we inherently and unconsciously seek in relationships, whether it is with a friend or a significant other. Affirmation plays an important part in any relationship, and it stems from the idea of caring in order to be cared for. There are no guidebooks for the risk of relationships. And try as we might to make trust symbolic, there’s no contract for the fall-out, no signature for an unspoken agreement.

Maybe that’s what empathy is, in this case: trusting the other person to know that you feel for them, and then trusting in return that they feel the same way about you. I cannot decide, but I still believe that it is better to care than to not care at all. Feeling is indeed a process of construction.

  1. Inner Conflict and Self-confidence

“We should empathize from courage.” ~ Jamison

In the article, Jamison referenced a study done in 1983 entitled, “The Structure of Empathy.” The scientists identified a correlation between empathy and four personality clusters: sensitivity, non-conformity, even-temperedness, and social self-confidence.

Like Jamison, I too was surprised by the last trait. One doesn’t generally envision confidence and empathy hand-in-hand, but the more that I thought about it, the more it made sense. Without the courage to understand myself and the confidence to accept my flaws, how could I better understand others and the problems they face? By carrying my insecurities around with me and letting them dictate my actions, I take up space in my heart and my mind that I could instead use to empathize with others.

I have a long way to go with this, though. I think it’s impossible to completely shed my insecurities – they are a part of me, and I carry them wherever I go.  

  1. Tragedies

“The healing part is always a hypothetic horizon we never reach…I used to believe that hurting would make you more alive to the hurting of others. I used to believe in feeling bad because somebody else did. When bad things happened to other people, I imagined them happening to me. I didn’t know if this was empathy or theft.” ~ Jamison

I remember watching what has now become one of my favourite movies: Rabbit Hole. And one of the scenes, the main character is talking with her mother about the pain of losing someone.

“Does it ever go away?” she asks.

Her mother shakes her head. “It’s like a brick you carry with you everywhere. You put it in your pocket, and it’s heavy, but you keep on going. And after awhile, you even forget that it’s there. But every now and then, you reach in your pocket, and you remember.”

“And how is that?”

After a long pause, her mother responds, “It’s okay.” She nods again, “It really is okay.”

After my mom lost her father, I didn’t know what to do for her. I didn’t know what to say. It turned out that I didn’t need to say anything. I just needed to listen and remember with her; the pain doesn’t go away, but it gets better. Healing takes time. Empathy takes time, and it should.   

There are, of course, many other instances and situations in which empathy plays a large role. But these were the ones that I thought of most after reading this article.  And there are a number of books and articles that I’ve felt changed my perspective somehow – made me wonder, laugh, dream, or cry. Still others have frustrated me, and some are, simply put, just a great read. But there are few that made me view the world with a new idea of empathy, encourage me to open my mind to the mindsets of others, to strive towards being a better, more understanding person.  This one did. I cannot recommend it enough.