The oxford dictionary online defines empathy as ‘the ability to understand and share the feelings of another’. After many years of self aware observation, I've come to some conclusions about empathy. I'll try to illustrate these conclusions with a description of a scenario, as viewed from inside my head.
I'm sitting in a coffee shop at a train station (I'm not, I'm at home writing this on my laptop, but we'll go with this scenario to illustrate my point). I'm waiting to meet a friend. the seat is hard and the cappuccino I bought for the right to sit on it is getting cold.
How do you think I'm feeling? it probably seems obvious, right?
I've already been here 25 minutes. I don't expect my friend to get here for at least another 10, we'll still have plenty of time if they arrive in 15. Our train isn't even on the departures board yet. I know this, but I still keep checking my watch, my phone, the departures board, my ticket, the station clock. I keep running through all the ways I might've got this wrong. Did I book the tickets for the right day? Is that day today? Does my friend know that? Did I make a mistake translating 12hr/24hr time? Am I sure I'm not looking at the arrivals board?
How about now? Has your perception changed?
I answer my own questions and try to calm down. It's the departures board, not the arrivals; it says departures right there. +/- 12 hours isn't complicated, but I'll check again. Of course they know, they'll be here soon. Yes, I've checked enough times. I take a deep breath, adjust my headphones and focus on the sketch pad in front of me.
Do I still sound crazy? Well...
My headphones are the little black ear-plug style ones I've had since I was 12. The ear parts are still covered in the neon yellow nail varnish that seemed like a good idea a decade ago, but they're still in full working order. That is, they would be in full working order if I plugged them into a compatible electronic device. As it is, the business end is tied around a belt loop and tucked into an otherwise empty pocket of my jeans. The music I'm swaying to is actually all in my head; the headphones just stop people staring as much (plus I find the sensation of the plugs and the slightly muted station sounds soothing). I'm also not sketching my surroundings, I'm zentangling.
Still here? Well done, I promise I'll get to the point soon.
In the above scenario, I'm buzzing. My obsessive checking is to deal with my natural lack of time sense and organisation and, while it does cause some stress, mostly adds to the excitement of the journey. But that's not really the point.
If I wrote it correctly, anyone reading the above scenario might have started empathising with the boredom they perceived in the first paragraph, mixed in with some frustration at my friend being late. On reading the second paragraph, this might shift to pity for what they perceive as my issues. After the third, maybe they're relived I don't seem as crazy and, after the last paragraph, they probably don't know what to think, but I'm probably back to "crazy". We all do this sort of thing, all the time. this is the illusion of empathy.
I believe that true empathy is impossible. to truly understand what another human is feeling, we have to know everything that is influencing their emotional state. This information is almost never available, so we fill in the blanks with our own experiences (for example, you might have inserted yourself and that friend of yours who's always late into the first paragraph of the above scenario). Most of the time, this works fine; the problem comes if we get more information.
If the information available is too much for us to fill in the blanks "cookie cutter style", most people don't know how to empathise, and so respond with pity. This can be seen above where I start describing my (actually fairly mild) anxiety issues. Suddenly, we go from "yeah, I know exactly how you feel" to "wtf? you poor thing! why is no one looking after you?" then, later on, maybe "meh, that's weird, but if you say you're OK...". The other common response in this situation is outright disbelief.
The first reaction is clearly not ‘understanding and sharing’ my feelings, but maybe I'm tricking the system. Maybe it's just an unusual experience and the concept of empathy is sound. Maybe, but...
... try thinking about it. has anyone ever expected you to feel differently about something? A relationship break up that seemed right to you, that others pitied you for? How about loosing a job? Or even not wanting to celebrate your birthday?
Clearly, then, empathy is not some sort of mystical, psychic connection between people; it's just the pretence that everyone feels exactly as you would in that situation. You don't "understand" or "share" anything. My pain is not your pain.
I understand all this, but I still superimpose my sensory issues on other people. I know it doesn't hurt most people if you stroke their hair, but I still "empathise" when I see this happening. I suppose we can't avoid the social delusion.