Empathy vs. Pity vs. Compassion
Semantics are tricky, and I totally see how you would have the opinion you do about pity versus empathy. However, I have found terms created by psychological theorists to be terrifically semantically misleading because so many of them are vague, imprecise, and non evidenced based. Empathy is one such term.
I use to think of the term empathy as you do, which was the definition I inherited. After my 3rd decade as an educator and parent is when I realized through observation and research that psychological definitions and interpretations are all over the map; they are sloppy, and none of them are mutually agreed upon.
The idea of empathy is not only neurologically impossible, it is also rarely used in the spirit in which i believe it was intended. It’s almost always used to scornfully mention how inadequate people are at it and/or to highlight how emotionally bereft ‘most’ people are. This is not only ironic, it just makes no logical sense. Why would a term created to indicate human compassion be used so often to highlight human inadequacy? Answers to these questions lie in the biological inaccuracy of the term.
The literal definition of empathy is to take someone else’s perspective which is neurologically impossible. I have billions upon billions upon billions of neurological interactions per thought per second. There is no way anyone can replicate in their brain and nervous system what is going on in my brain and nervous system. To make up a word that says it is possible lends itself to many uncomfortable, odd, and often privacy violating exchanges with others.
I believe we use the term empathy when we should be using the term compassion. To care about someone else, to want to help and support, is a common human response. But to believe we can literally take someone else’s perspective is a violation of what we are able to neurologically do. As an act of compassion I can attempt to understand someone else’s perspective as fully as I am able. As an act of respect, I know I can never fully know another’s perspective.
Believing empathy is possible is the reason it is so often mentioned scornfully in the context of how bad people are at it. People aren’t good at it because it’s not possible.
You mention in your response people prefer pity over empathy because empathy is such messy work and people would prefer to have no emotional involvement.
We have been sold a very strange and biologically inaccurate narrative about the role emotions play in our human brain. My emotions are simply biological cues to help me optimally make sense of information based upon my cognitive and sensory-motor strengths. My emotions are as private and personal as my genitalia, my hunger, my thirst, my skin. When I apply my emotional cues to understand what someone else is going through, it places that other person in an uncomfortable and often threatening position.
None of us likes to be told how we are thinking or feeling from another person’s perspective. And to be told constantly we are emotionally inadequate, i.e., bad at empathy, in my opinion, is one of the contributing reasons to mental illness. When we are made to doubt the apparatus we rely on to assess information and make decisions, we are made very anxious.
Anxiety related disorders are skyrocketing. I have been a teacher off and on for 35 years. In my last job I taught adapted physical education for 7 years in a row in all the schools in our district, all grades. I watched happy, engaged, interested 7 year olds become increasingly anxiety ridden and withdrawn with each passing year because our psychological theories teach educators to treat individual emotions as if they are public, not private. We are damaging the healthy mental development of our children by having made emotions a public commodity. That 1 in 5 people develop mental illness makes perfect sense.
Neurological information about cognitive and emotional processes is easy to research. How psychologists have come up with the odd interpretations they have makes sense in the context of the 1900’s when psychology was developing. Sadly, it has not changed its theories to keep up with the research. The developing brains and bodies of our children are suffering and one in five will end up with a mental illness. We owe it to our children to review and re-evaluate the information we were taught as children for how to understand how our personal thoughts, emotions, and behaviors integrate.
Thank you for your response. You may or may not come over to my way of seeing the notion of empathy, but either way I appreciate the exchange of ideas!