Oct 7, 2013

A Quick Primer On Empathy, or Empathy 101

I sometimes wonder if some people are judgmental because they lack certain life experiences, and are therefore incapable of imagining what other people's struggles feel like. Actually, I don't wonder that at all. I'm certain of it. So I offer the following list of unpleasantries that everyone should suffer at least once in their lifetime, in the interest of increasing empathy and becoming better people. I realize this list is incomplete and horribly biased toward my own stuff. And I should confess that this post is, in part, a reactive rant inspired by a rude comment on my essay about depression on Everyday Feminism. Whatever. I'm okay with that.

When you've endured each of these for a minimum of one or two hours, feel free to judge others:

  • Labor (the childbearing kind, not manual)
  • A debilitating migraine (as if there is any other kind)
  • Severe depression (or any mental illness, really)
  • Prejudice (being the target of racism, sexism, homophobia)
  • Chronic pain (not visible to others)
  • Poverty (or even the specter of being one crisis away from losing everything)
  • Loneliness (not just feeling alone, but having literally no one to reach out to)
  • Physical withdrawal (from prescription drugs, OTC drugs, street drugs, alcohol, cigarettes)
  • Failure (of the big, humiliating, life-changing nature)
  • Fear of losing a loved one (in a discrete, immediate sense)
  • Spending time in a psych ward (yup, been there)
  • Being kicked in the balls (for the men out there)
  • Stupidity (throwing this in here because it seems only fair)

I believe there are traumas no one should ever have to experience: physical or sexual abuse, the death of a child, war, famine, manmade or natural disasters—the list goes on. These are easy to empathize with, perhaps because they seem so distant and unlikely to affect us personally.

So, what did I miss? What would you add to this list?

UPDATE: Considering the thoughtful comments (below), I stand corrected. Don't judge. Just don't. It's not nice.


Laura said...

I'm totally with you. I read comments all the time and wonder how people lack something that seems so basic to me, seems. I'm going to disagree a little bit though and say that even when a person has endured any of those things you listed, they still really don't have a lot of room to judge others. Some people are more resilient to life's hard experiences than others. Two people can go through the exact same thing and experience totally opposite outcomes. Attitudes and whatnot play a part, but natural resiliency (along with tools we pick up as kids and adults, largely offered to us based on luck of the draw) make a huge difference in how we handle the situation.

So I just think people should lay off the damn judgment - at least the really ugly stuff. As shocking as it seems b/c of my brutal sarcasm and Type A personality, I've been accused of being empathetic to a fault. Which I suppose I'd rather be over horribly judgmental...

Laurel said...

Totally agree, Laura! Judgment sucks. Should have run this past someone smarter than I. :)

Laura said...

Oh please. (And someone "smarter" would have proofread her comment and fixed the first freaking sentence.)

This is a really important topic that we need to talk about and teach our kids. It's mind boggling to me how many people honestly lack something that seems so necessary. I don't get it. But I'm glad your'e talking about it!

Laurel said...


Joan Rogers said...

You know...I think what it comes down to is that suffering is suffering, and the particular manifestation of it is irrelevant. If people can't respond appropriately and kindly to the fact of pain, and if they must have it contextualized in some way they personally have experienced or can understand...well, yikes. But it's far easier to judge pain than to empathize with it, because once empathy exists, so does the possibility that I, too, will experience that kind of pain. If I say "get over it!" there is some (entirely illusory) power to me, some superiority. Sitting with other people's pain in a safe and loving way implies a willingness to sit in the same way with one's own pain,and to recognize that pain exists, and is inevitable. And the ability to do that is not a skill we value very highly in our modern world.

Laurel said...

I love that, Joan. Well said, as usual.

Brad said...

Glad you included a nut punch in there. It's important.

Liz said...

Can we throw: "Experience the death of a loved one" in there? In theory, everyone knows this feels "bad." The difference between people who have been through it, and people who haven't, is how long they expect the grieving process to take.

People who have not been through this think the worst is over in, what? Let's say 3 months, just to be kind. Beyond that, and the griever gets a lot of "Still? Really?" People have been through it are aware that the process takes more than a year. MORE than a year!

Laurel said...

I considered that one, Liz, because it's so difficult to go through without support. But can you condense that pain into a couple of hours? And while some people lose more than their fair share of loved ones, I figured we will all lose at least one at some point. How about, "Experience the premature/unexpected death of a loved one?" But even that doesn't address the length of the grieving process.

Jo said...

I want to throw in "experiencing life outside of your culture and/or language". This can be a completely isolating and confusing experience. Not enough of us have empathy for those who find themselves in these circumstances, especially those who have been forced to relocate from their homes.

Laurel said...

That's a fantastic addition, Jo! I was once in Costa Rica for a few months doing volunteer work, and I remember one instance when I was in a room full of locals who were laughing and speaking Spanish so fast I couldn't keep up. I felt so excluded and clueless and embarrassed. And it was my choice to be there.

girl in the hat said...

Love this. I'd have to add something about not being able to afford something you need/have to have. Like lunch, or a parking ticket, or new shoes for the kid, or college. Sorry about the crappy comments. For that person, I'd prescribe a little hair of the dog and see how they liked it. xoox

Laurel said...

Those are all good additions, too, Anna. xo

Lyndsey said...

I really like that you're using empathy to consider the reasons that people are making negative judgments - you've gone beyond saying "oh they're just jerks" and you're trying to understand them. That's really fantastic, and does a lot to engender a culture of empathy.