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Is Empathy Possible?


I wonder about this a fair bit.

It seems to me that, often (perhaps always?), what we believe is empathy (the supposed taking an emotional walk in the other person’s shoes and getting so thoroughly inside their head that we feel what they feel) is really projection (assigning our own feelings to them and filtering their experiences through our own psyches,

9 thoughts on “Is Empathy Possible?

  • June 23, 2010 at 11:07 am

    A fascinating post that will leave me with something to consider for the rest of the day, at least… That said, i do think there is empathy, and that with it comes those moments when we are really connected to another person. Not in totally becoming the other, or knowing them completely [ how could yu know me when I am myself changing and experiencing contradictory thoughts and feelings] -but in residing in a common space for at least a moment.

    Back in the day – when i worked with abusive or neglectful parents, especially mothers…. one of the best indicators of the capability for someone to become better at parenting was the ability of that person to imagine changing places with the child. Yes, of course, it involved calling on their own past experience, and one could not measure objectively how close their feelings came to that of their own child. But the epiphany that occurred in those people as they allowed themselves to feel as if they were that child was one of the few signs that they were capable of developing a nurturing relationship. Did this involve imagining a nurturing relationship for themselves? I think so. And I think this was true empathy.

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  • June 23, 2010 at 8:40 pm

    Both empathy and altruism are illusions. But they’re the best illusions we have.

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  • June 25, 2010 at 7:49 pm

    Maybe it’s empathy when we tell people what they want to hear and it’s projection when we don’t. 🙂

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  • June 27, 2010 at 3:43 pm

    I have been broke with little or no money for food. When I go to the food pantry to help, I KNOW what those people feel. My son died two years ago; I feel I understand people who have lost children much better than I did before he died. When my grandson scores a touchdown and walks off the field with that smile on his face, I KNOW what he is feeling. Please tell us what you feel when you see a mother burying her only son that was killed in Iraq.

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  • July 14, 2010 at 6:32 pm

    Maybe you dont see the need for or cannot understand the value of true empathy because you dont have much. I am sure you still are very good at your job and help people without it, but dont feel you are justified in devaluing the beautiful gift of empathy that some people have that is healing for others that recieve it.

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  • July 14, 2010 at 6:37 pm

    Your question “is empathy possible”. I say probibly not for you if you were not naturally born with it. Do not spend too much time worrying about it. Those that have it will use it and those that dont will use their other gifts. Each has their own way. Do not judge.

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  • July 26, 2010 at 12:09 am

    The point of this article is that we have a definition problem. We as a society like to label things, a lot. However, when we apply the definition of empathy to something that isn’t; and there were several examples of this problem in the responses, the word loses its meaning and as a society we become confused. This is a fabulous article that raises a really great question especially in the new age of narcissism. Thank you for this piece.

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    • January 5, 2015 at 4:05 am

      I do agree with you Colleen, it is a definition problem we have here. Also the other challenge we are faced with as a society is that we seldom take time to critically and objectively think about a lot of things around us and within us….

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  • January 6, 2015 at 8:01 pm

    Is there perfect empathy? No, but this is not a binary, all-or-nothing thing. I agree it’s a definition problem. It’s defeatist to think that because we can’t figure someone or something out completely, that we must resign ourselves to being “wrong.” It’s often worth the effort to come to a rough understanding of others, at least if we care to help or relate to them. As another post said, it’s all we have. If we choose not to try, that’s a conscious choice, not the wise acceptance of some inevitable reality of human relations.

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