Understanding the Limitations of Empathy

Alicia Liu
May 29, 2018 · 7 min read

empathy (noun): “the psychological identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.”

If you see someone being crushed by a rock, you can help them without feeling like you’re also being crushed. Photo by Joeri Römer on Unsplash

As a society, we tend to hold up empathy in a purely positive light. We view the lack of empathy as contributing to all manner of societal ills––discrimination of all sorts, all the -isms, homelessness, world hunger––if only people had more empathy, these problems could be solved!

I was also aboard the empathy train. It makes sense on the surface. Appealing to empathy is appealing to our sense of humanity. If we could truly feel how these people feel, surely we cannot stand by and watch these daily atrocities occur? Surely not. We aren’t inhumane.

So over the past few years, I’ve worked on developing more empathy. I have to admit, being empathetic is not something that comes naturally to me. My tendency is to be pretty oblivious to people’s feelings (including my own!) unless they’re really explicitly made known to me. I’ve had counseling and have read many books, have learned to listen and meditate, and have intentionally practiced what I’ve learned in my interactions with people and in how I consume news and opinions.

It’s not that I haven’t been successful at developing more empathy (though I certainly have more room to grow). My development in this area has appreciably improved both my personal relationships and my professional life — especially as I’ve become a manager.

What I’m bothered by is realizing how very limited empathy is in a broader context. As I have grown more and more troubled by the exalted position that empathy holds in the dialogues on our most important social issues — racism, sexism, and discrimination of all kinds — I am increasingly seeing how the focus on empathy is holding us back from taking action.

To illustrate this point, imagine you’re walking and you see someone being crushed by a rock. You can empathize with that person, which results in you vicariously experiencing the weight of the rock crushing you, the pain, the difficulty of breathing, the desperation. How do you help someone else if you feel you’re being crushed to death? Alternatively, you can jump to action to help that person get out from under the rock as quickly as possible. You don’t need empathy to do that. You can acknowledge a person being crushed by a rock is bad, and that you’re able to help, then do it, which is good.

We live in a broken society that has chipped away at the social safety net while simultaneously making it more difficult for people to not need these services. I work on improving government services, because I recognize that getting access to these essential services is critical for huge numbers of people, and I acknowledge that financial security is foundational to being able to live a good life and contribute to society. As a society, we should help people bridge that gap, not deepen the chasm so people have no ability to get out of poverty.

I can do this work without empathizing deeply with what it feels like to have no financial security or lack of safety net. Statistically speaking, if I had deep experience of not having financial security, I most likely would not have made it to where I am today where I can have a large impact. Furthermore, I’ve found that when I used to feel the need to keep up with the news, and tried to empathize with all the people whose lives are being ruined every day, I was much less able to deal with the challenges I faced, to help my coworkers and users. I later learned there is a term for what I was experiencing: empathic distress — an emotional state characterized by the inability to tolerate the perceived pain or suffering of another. Too much empathy can be paralyzing and at worst, cause a decline in mental health.

Empathy is also limited in the sense that genuine empathy may be impossible to achieve in most cases. Human experience is by definition subjective. We each carry innumerable experiences within us, and even when we objectively experience the same thing, we can respond completely differently to the same event. Our literal memories of what happened are different — what’s salient about the event are different and stored differently in each of our brains. How the event shapes us are different based on who we are and all our previous experiences. To feel genuine empathy, you would necessarily need to both have shared a large quantity of significant experiences together and also have developed a deep understanding of the other person’s general outlook on life and their basis for understanding the world. This is an impossibly high bar for all but a handful of people in my life, and even for those people, I have to work very hard to meet that bar. For everyone else, I can muster a basic limited version of empathy at best.

I like to think that I have experienced various hardships throughout my life that allow me to empathize with a wider range of people. However, even despite growing up relatively poor by western societal standards, I don’t know what it feels like to not have financial security. As a result, I cannot deeply empathize with the most vulnerable in our society, despite materially having been in the same place. Two kids can start out poor in similar conditions, but have wildly different outcomes—not because one is smarter, or more hard working, or passed the marshmallow test, but because of their parents’ education and access to knowledge and resources, which have huge compounding effects over their childhood years.

I spent my early childhood reading and writing with my grandfather, a professor.

As an immigrant kid, I slept on the couch of a studio apartment I shared with my parents. Even though we started out living in rough inner cities where I experienced my share of discrimination, we were able to live in countries with working social safety nets and access to opportunities (Germany, then Canada). When I got really sick and doctors didn’t know what was wrong with me, I spent two weeks in a private hospital room until I got better—at no cost to my parents. Even though I started out speaking zero German or English both times we immigrated, my parents and grandparents were highly educated. I grew up spending most of my childhood reading, writing, and drawing, and I had access to great public schools. I benefited from subsidized tuition at a world-class university, which allowed me to graduate debt-free and with sufficient savings to embark on a risky startup career right out of school. I have been incredibly lucky to have the opportunities I have today, to now be in a position where I can help others.

Then there’s a gamut of other experiences that I can’t even get close to being able to genuinely empathize with. I don’t truly know what it feels like to be wearisome of police in my normal daily life because of the real fear that they will harm me or worse. I cannot fathom what it’s like to lose a child to violence. I can’t identify with having to hide a significant part of who I am for fear of being ostracized by everyone I know. I don’t know what it’s like to have my body be controlled and violated by someone else.

I can get glimpses of what these might feel like from reading and listening to the brave and generous souls who eloquently share their experiences, which I do. But outside of being immersed in a book, a dialogue, or a film, I don’t feel it vicariously. I don’t feel it in my bones.

And I realized I don’t need to. Because I don’t need empathy to know that killing innocent people is wrong, that killing children is wrong, that we should treat each other with love not hate, that our bodies are our own. We can make moral judgments about right and wrong, about the right ways to act to better ourselves and to better our society, without relying on empathy.

Empathy alone doesn’t result in anything. Empathy needs to be coupled with action. This is why I now prefer thinking in terms of kindness and compassion rather than empathy. Empathy is a feeling, while kindness and compassion are both rooted in action. You have to display kindness and compassion through acts. You cannot just feel something, you have to do something.

We don’t need to rely on fickle empathy as a prerequisite for taking action. We can determine the right course and act with kindness and compassion.

Related Reading: There are other ways that empathy not only falls short, but can be counter-productive. Refer to my article on management practices for a brief discussion of ruinous empathy — how empathy can lead to organizational decline, and the difference between being nice and being kind.

*A note on the title: I hope it’s clear I’m not trying to say empathy is useless. Empathy is essential. It helps us feel in touch with one another, to feel each other’s struggles, to feel connected to all humanity. Empathy is a deeply human capacity that we should endeavor to grow in ourselves and others. Empathy is a core attribute that I look for in hiring. However, empathy for me is inwardly directed––it helps me develop myself and experience personal growth because I can better understand and relate to people. When I’m focused on myself, my attention is not toward others. What we need to better each other and society is outward positive action and to practice kindness and compassion.

Counter Intuition

Personal blog on leadership, philosophy, behavior change, and technology.

Alicia Liu

Written by

Wanderer above the sea of fog // programmer beneath the sweat of brow

Counter Intuition

Personal blog on leadership, philosophy, behavior change, and technology.

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