[advice] Can sympathize but have trouble empathizing

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[advice] Can sympathize but have trouble empathizing

Post by Thanos6 on Tue May 10, 2016 1:35 am

Moderate-time lurker, relatively new poster to the DNL blog. Trundlebear referred me here (thanks, Trundlebear!).

I can feel bad that people are going through pain or tough times, and I want them to feel better, I genuinely do. But when I find out what's causing them this emotional pain, a lot of times I feel it's something that, well, I can't understand why they're making such a big deal about it.

It's like in Harry Potter.
Mild spoilers for HALF-BLOOD PRINCE.:
When Aragog dies, Hagrid is torn-up about it. Grieving, crying, getting drunk. And the kids, especially arachnophobic Ron, clearly have trouble understanding why. They just can't get why anyone would mourn a giant spider who gave its children permission to eat people. But at the same time, they clearly feel bad that Hagrid is hurting and honestly, sincerely want to make him feel better.

Many times, I feel like that. Whether it's someone I know or just a stranger, I want them to be happy, but it can be tough to know exactly how to help with that, if I just can't understand why it has them down.

I try to put myself in their shoes but it doesn't seem to help. Are there any good exercises or anything meant for increasing empathy? Thanks ahead of time for any thoughts.
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Re: [advice] Can sympathize but have trouble empathizing

Post by reboot on Tue May 10, 2016 1:53 am

Empathy is mostly an exercise in imagination. One way to develop it is by reading fiction with POV characters that are not like you at all and/or writing fiction. Alternatively (and more difficult) is to get to know people you have nothing in common with and learn their stories and how they became who they are. The hardest part of this is (beyond getting close to people, which is hard on its own), is to stop thinking, "If I was in that situation I would have done X", because you need to picture being in a situation as someone else.
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Re: [advice] Can sympathize but have trouble empathizing

Post by Thanos6 on Tue May 10, 2016 3:02 am

I like to write, but I run into the problem of "How do these people believe this stuff?" With people who believe different than me, I have to fight the urge to write them as either stupid or willfully Evil.
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Re: [advice] Can sympathize but have trouble empathizing

Post by BasedBuzzed on Tue May 10, 2016 7:29 am

It's good to distinguish a bit between cognitive empathy and emotional empathy: http://blog.teleosleaders.com/2013/07/19/emotional-empathy-and-cognitive-empathy/
You want more of the former, while the latter is less of a priority, I'd wager (you can still feel like something's wrong with you because you don't react as emotionally, but that's more of a private problem versus the social trouble you run into if you cannot comprehend the emotional state of others).

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Re: [advice] Can sympathize but have trouble empathizing

Post by Thanos6 on Tue May 10, 2016 7:42 am

Yeah, I'm fine with the emotional empathy side of it, I don't really have problems understanding WHAT people are feeling; no more than most people do, I'd say. But putting myself in their place and really truly understanding WHY they're feeling that way and reacting to their situations as they do, that's what I have problems with.

I'm not so much of a boor as to say this kind of stuff out loud, but even while I'm comforting them and doing my sincere best to cheer them up, "You're upset over that?!" is echoing through my head.
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Re: [advice] Can sympathize but have trouble empathizing

Post by BasedBuzzed on Tue May 10, 2016 9:38 am

They might not even know so themselves, to be honest, or misattribute it. A post-hoc explanation when they're actually tired, or have been eating wrong, or it falls within a pattern of past trauma or negative memories that they haven't seen the link in themselves. Or they go for a more convenient explanation that means they don't have to make hard decisions. Not that that means you constantly have to second-guess people or dismiss their explanations, but it helps with thinking past the initial reasons given if they sound vague.

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Re: [advice] Can sympathize but have trouble empathizing

Post by reboot on Tue May 10, 2016 11:26 am

People may also be unwilling to share reasons if they do not know and trust you or if you have a history of dismissing and second guessing people's reasons for how they think and act. People also act on instinct a lot, which is not irrational, but is hard to explain because it is decided so quickly.

I had to learn empathy because of my job, especially when I was stationed overseas. I had to do a lot of negotiating and deal making with people whose background and experiences were completely different from mine (e.g. Congolese warlords, Afghan clan leaders). Often these were people who hated and distrusted me on sight, so I needed to figure out how they thought so that I could approach them in a way that would let me do my work. The first thing I did was to read as much as I could about people like them, written by people like them. I had to completely toss any tendency to think, "If I was him I would do X" and learn to think, "Given what I know of people like him as learned from reading and listening to people like him, what would he think? What would he do?". I was not always successful, but I managed not to get anyone killed (something some of my less empathetic colleagues did not manage).
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Re: [advice] Can sympathize but have trouble empathizing

Post by Thanos6 on Tue May 10, 2016 12:00 pm

I can muddle through enough that I can generally make decent assumptions like "what does this person want or value?" (though not nearly as well as you seem to be able to do) I just can't get myself to understand why they want or value these things. I have literally given myself a headache trying to understand people with different political views.

And Creator knows I'll probably NEVER be able to stop thinking "If I was him I would do X." The best I'll probably ever be able to manage is, "In his conditions and given his beliefs, he would probably do Z...but if I was him I would do X, which is obviously the correct option." (Have I mentioned yet that I have a severe streak of narcissism? I have a severe streak of narcissism.)
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Re: [advice] Can sympathize but have trouble empathizing

Post by Wondering on Tue May 10, 2016 12:24 pm

So, have you read fiction, or even autobiographies, of people not like you, as reboot suggested?

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Re: [advice] Can sympathize but have trouble empathizing

Post by Thanos6 on Tue May 10, 2016 12:28 pm

Yes, and apologies for not mentioning this earlier in the thread. I'm a voracious reader. Auto/biographies aren't usually my cup of tea, but I've certainly read a few. I love fiction, though, read tons of it. Depending on how one defines "not like me," I'd say a fairly decent amount of it qualifies, but I don't know how much it's helped.
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Re: [advice] Can sympathize but have trouble empathizing

Post by Wondering on Tue May 10, 2016 12:39 pm

Not like you means usually: Not your gender, not your race, not your socio-economic status, not your religion (or non-religion), not your nationality. Not your time period, too, since we're talking fiction.

If you're trying to find empathy for a particular group, it helps to read fiction or autobiographies by and about people in that group. Like, read books by women about women.

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Re: [advice] Can sympathize but have trouble empathizing

Post by Thanos6 on Tue May 10, 2016 12:41 pm

No, not trying to find it for a particular group, unless "people that don't agree with me" counts as a group. Smile Just trying for a rise in general empathy levels.
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Re: [advice] Can sympathize but have trouble empathizing

Post by Wondering on Tue May 10, 2016 12:46 pm

It sounds like people who have different beliefs than you -- religious, political, philosophical -- might be a place to concentrate on, then.

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Re: [advice] Can sympathize but have trouble empathizing

Post by Werel on Tue May 10, 2016 2:44 pm

Thanos6 wrote:I like to write, but I run into the problem of "How do these people believe this stuff?" With people who believe different than me, I have to fight the urge to write them as either stupid or willfully Evil.
It also sounds like Hanlon's Razor ("never ascribe to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity") has maybe been too influential in your thinking? Smile A better version: "never ascribe to stupidity or malice that which is adequately explained by differing life experiences." People don't believe different things than you for no reason; they believe them because that belief makes sense in the context of their life. Maybe reading accounts of how people come to beliefs you don't share would be helpful? Or even better, talking to people (ideally ones you respect) about the contexts of their beliefs and how they developed ("When did you first start thinking about this? What about it makes you feel good? Do other people in your life share this belief?"). It's a very human thing to want to see the Other as idiotic or malicious or something to explain why our own beliefs are actually the correct ones, but it's also a very good thing to try to get past.
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