The Empathy Gap: When “Been There, Done That” is not Enough

As someone who has been told several times she is too empathetic to survive in this harsh world, I assumed I knew a lot about empathy. I never pretended to know how to kindle it in others, but I rarely had difficulty placing myself in even the most unusual positions to investigate all sides of an issue. While this tendency to favour the empathetic response is often involuntary and sometimes overwhelming, I always viewed it as a net positive. Surely, by being such an effortlessly empathetic soul—if not an effortlessly kind one—I must be adept at feeling and demonstrating compassion for others, especially when I’ve walked in similar shoes. Since I’m privileged to be trusted with so many personal stories of struggle, my well-ingrained empathetic response was one of the few traits about which I was fully confident.
Like so many of my long-held and cherished assumptions, I ran into compelling evidence that I was wrong. What is more, I should not have needed a formal study on the empathy gap to convince me; my own negative experiences with the disability community should have been sufficient. According to the authors of this study, the common belief that walking in someone else’s shoes ought to inspire compassion and even leniency is statistically inaccurate. This might not feel true at first, but the more I pondered it, the more sense it made.
Take this example from a few years ago, when I was beginning to find my place in the disability community: An acquaintance, who lived with physical and mental disabilities, was finally able to obtain permanent, fulfilling employment. I expected he would dedicate some of his emotional resources to encouraging others who had not yet reached that goal, or at least affirm that the struggle is, in fact, real. Within months of his triumph, however, he was already cutting fellow disabled people down, suggesting that aspiring workers should simply try harder, and campaigning to cut benefits meant to help those aspiring workers survive while they continued their job searches. The years he had spent searching for his own job, the discrimination he had battled, the pain he had suffered—he had either forgotten them altogether, minimized their power, or attributed his success to superior mettle. Whatever the reason, I drew away from him in shock and disappointment, unable to believe someone could be so hypocritical and heartless.
The idealist in me is loath to admit it, but his response wasn’t just statistically normal. His response, extreme though it was, is one I see in most people I know, including my oh-so-empathetic self. I’m working to exercise compassion and empathy more consciously and intentionally, but I still catch myself dismissing or minimizing someone else’s experiences on the bogus basis that I’ve been there, I’ve done that, and I’m on the other side of it or, at least, I’ve learned to shoulder it. Meanwhile, the nondisabled people I know are more likely to listen attentively and judge less readily, because they have not worn those shoes and do not feel qualified to do more than be supportive. You will find far too many people, disabled and nondisabled, who are quick to judge a situation even and especially when they have no knowledge of it, but most people know when they’re out of their depth, and won’t pretend otherwise.
Now that I’ve been a multiply-disabled person for decades, and worked in a disability-adjacent field for a few years, I am forced to confront the reality that lived experiences don’t automatically result in increased compassion and empathy. In fact, disabled people and those close to them tend to err on the side of harshness, reasoning that they or someone they know managed to “overcome,” which means they have little or no sympathy for anyone who is less successful. There’s a well-worn joke in the disability employment field about how case managers with disabilities are the toughest, and for the most part it checks out. Disabled case managers, and those with disabled family members or friends, may have more knowledge and may make fewer generalizations on average, but they are also likely to say something like “I was able to do this, so why can’t you?” When I wrote about my fear of blind people, this is the core of what I was describing: nondisabled people typically take me at face value after a while, but disabled people often seem to be sizing me up. In an ugly and ironic twist, I have caught myself sizing up my clients in precisely the same way.
As is my custom, I thought about calls to action before sitting down to write this post. I dislike bringing up an issue without pointing toward potential solutions, and this is no exception. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be much direct action to be taken against the empathy gap, besides acknowledging it exists and fighting the instinct to judge, give unsolicited advice, or condemn when we encounter someone who is wearing shoes very like our own.
When you feel empathy, ask yourself the hard questions: Is this a pure feeling? Am I using my past experiences to offer guidance and validation? Is the advice I’m giving, the story I’m telling, the wisdom I’m dispensing welcome? Solicited? Needed? Useful? Am I sharing understanding, or centreing myself? Do I have any right to speak to this situation at all, or am I talking when I ought to be listening?
I’ll close with insightful advice from the authors of the study I referenced earlier. According to Ruttan, McDonnel, and Nordgren, it’s best to get out of your own head, place less emphasis on your individual experiences, and focus on the situation in front of you. If it helps, think of all the many people in the world struggling with the same burdens, instead of zeroing in on your personal journey.
Armed with this knowledge and these strategies, I hope we can all put our empathy to good use, and grow into a more supportive, less judgmental community. Come join me!

Advertisements

One thought on “The Empathy Gap: When “Been There, Done That” is not Enough

  1. it was fitting that this post be posted when it was. because on that day it was brought home to me that even if somebody has a mental illness we may not fully comprehend what they’re going through but all we can do is be a friend to them. when I was told this friend had skitzophrenia I was worried at first because I was worried about how safe I’d be alone with her but she assured me that if I was alone with her I’d be safe and I know now that not all people with skitzophrenia are to be feared. maybe that’s just my thoughts but sometimes I’m not prepared. I’m not saying that all people with mental illness are this way they can be and often are lovely people on the outside it’s just what is going on in their head that is of concern but we often can find a way to be protected from the worst of it.

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.