Why you should stop saying “I can’t imagine what you’re going through”
And why going through similar stuff as people isn’t that essential
The reason, in one word: empathy.
But I’ll need to unpack that, so read on.
When stuff happens to people and we say, “I can’t imagine what you must be going through,” I get it but I think it’s misguided. I think we mean to say “I don’t KNOW what you’re going through.” Which is right. Because even if you’ve experienced similar, it’s different.
But the very fact that you don’t know is all the more reason to imagine. Because right at the root of empathy is imagination. They rise or fall together. If you can’t imagine what someone is going through, you can’t empathise with them.
But of course you can empathise. Which means your imagination’s working just fine.
Think about it.
What really is empathy, after all?
Empathy is basically your ability to connect, not just with what others are going through but also with their emotions.Empathy: your ability to connect with not just others' EXPERIENCES but also their EMOTIONS. Click To Tweet
But the experiences you’re connecting with are not yours. Even if you have been through similar experiences, they’re still unique on two levels:
- No two experiences are exactly the same.
- No two people are the same, and who we are significantly shapes the experience.
So in the end, when you’re empathising, you’re really connecting with a foreign experience, however familiar it might seem to you. In fact, familiarity might breed contempt here as well — or which of us has not experienced someone thinking less kindly of you because they feel they’ve seen what you’ve seen and more, and they didn’t fall apart like you are now?
Empathy is, by definition, an act of imagination. [Tweet this]
In the end, empathy is really less about knowledge and more about imagination, whether you’ve been through similar or not. The advantage of having been through similar is that it helps you imagine better what this one is like. The disadvantage is that might tempt you to put them on the same scale, which only leads to being judgmental. And sometimes, the kindest people are those who haven’t been through it but care enough to use all their powers of imagination to connect with it.
And it’s the caring that really matters. Because while empathy works by imagination, it’s driven by caring. You have to care enough to imagine what this feels like, and then to act out of that imagination.
And that’s possible whether you’ve been through similar or not.Caring is the WHY of empathy. But it's imagination that is the HOW. Click To Tweet
Of course, there’s also the very real possibility of mistaking your imagination of what they must be going through for actual knowledge of what they are going through.
How to know if you’re empathising
The simple answer is to really care, but the problem with that, is people who do more harm than good often think they care, too. So we need something a little more specific. So think about it in terms of avoid the commonest mistake in trying to empathise: being judgemental.
Here’s there’s an easy way to avoid this: don’t get mixed up about what you’re trying to achieve.
If your main goal is to connect deeply with someone going through stuff in their experience, you’ll naturally use your imagination to try to feel, not just for them (sympathy or pity), but also with them (empathy) in a way that will guide your actions. And yes, those actions may include offering helpful advice.
But if your aim is to fix them, or to prescribe solutions, then of course you’ll naturally assume the knowledge that gives you a right to do that and drop it before you actually listen and feel.
(And it works backwards too: if you find yourself dropping knowledge, then that tells you something about what you’re trying to achieve, whatever you prefer to tell yourself.)
Even in professional settings, where you’re paid to help prescribe/fix: you can’t skip the empathy stage. (And yes, I learned this the hard way.)
The best part about all this, though? The more we make the effort to connect, whether we do it well or not, the more richly human we become.
In connecting with others, we become more truly ourselves.
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