Knowing how IT feels

I often get the words empathy and sympathy confused. Here are versions of the definition that make sense to me: “Empathy is shown in how much compassion and understanding we can give to another. Sympathy is more of a feeling of pity for another.”

It is materially easier to develop empathy for someone—or some thing—if you, yourself have experienced said situation. The tricky part is that, because we are all human and life is generally speaking an extremely complex function of millions of micro-events, it is impossible to have experienced life in the _exact_ same way as another. That being said, many of us creatures tend to bond over SHARED pieces of life. They do not have to be (and perhaps this is obvious) EXACTLY the same, but any time we see intersections of our venn diagram, we tend to perk up at least a little bit.

A note, though, is that there are some of us, or at least on some topics, where seeing overlap in the venn diagram actually forces the opposite reaction. Rather than get closer, we actually push ourselves further away. Why is this? Why do we run from BOTH the familiar AND the foreign? Obviously, depends on the circumstance. At least one hypothesis I have is that when you are familiar with something, IT CAN BE SCARY. It can be scary because, well, you may be so familiar with how bad something is that you do not want to get close to it.

There is also the opposite situation, the one this essay is mainly about, which is the situation where you do not KNOW HOW SOMETHING FEELS, in which case it may be hard for you to build empathy for another’s human experience. Notice how I talk the FEELING space and not the cognitive space. Far too often do I find myself int he cognitive space. It is not that the cognitive space is always bad. In fact, it can be extremely useful (and in today’s age, valuable) to be competent at navigating the cognitive world. But defaulting to the cognitive space, always, like most absolutes, is a dangerous, or better put, ineffective hammer, ESPECIALLY ESPECIALLY when you are dealing with human beings. When you are dealing with other humans, at least sprinkling in some EMOTIONAL SPACE DUST is needed. This emotional space—simply defined as the FEELINGS, yes the ones you know, the hard to describe ones but the ones that make? you human in some capacity—is where EMPATHY truly lives.

Because if you try to write an equation for empathy, well (I cannot say I have not in any capacity done a version of this), you will get lost. Lost not in a fun way but rather in a way that drives you to the point of massive ineffectiveness/upsetness/frustration. Because…because this whole: “you have never been in my shoes type of thing” — IS TRUE! It is truly impossible for another human to have lived your exact life. So, while we are all approximating the emotions of others, I am often left with a boiling frustration—why is the burden on the people around you to triangulate how you feel…why not use words to describe your situation and see how others can help you?

This is where my logic is DUMB. Dumb, perhaps, but more importantly extremely ineffective. Ineffective because often times FEELINGs block others ability to communicate. Block is maybe the wrong word. They alter things. They at least put a filter up so that any communication from someone is skewed in some capacity. Almost like a machine that takes in an input thought and then goes through some sort of process to find the appropriate abstraction that balances: what the person is trying to say with what sort of cover would protect their emotions effectively.

This is kind of besides the point, and is a rant I have gone on for years and come to peace with. I have come to peace with the idea that PEOPLE DO PEOPLE STUFF, and you cannot change that (at least not over any short term time horizon that is for sure). People stuff are the emotional / feelings stuff. When you are on the other side of the table, the viewer to the PEOPLE STUFF, you kinda have a choice to make. You can try to rationalize every thing they are doing. Or you can accept that they are FEELING IT right now. I mean this is a false dichotomy but go through it with me for the sake of exercise. I often times default towards the former—that is the draw of the logic of the cognitive brain. But there’s a fatal error: the former is SO MUCH WORK, AND OFTEN INEFFECTIVE.

Most people stuff can be better explained by simply saying (likely to yourself, not to others): that the other person is experiencing lots of feelings right now. Any of their communication is being massively altered by said feelings so it does not make sense to over-analyze that output. Rather, just accept that they are in a feelings mode.

It is much much easier for me to do that when I KNOW HOW IT FEELS to be on the other side.

For a long while, I was not navigating to the feelings zone. When I say a long while, what I mean is basically for my whole life. I was protecting myself, in a shell, against experiencing many of these feelings. And then, and this is a longer topic that I touch on in many essays, I opened the floodgates of sorts (not particularly gracefully) and let the feelings in (and have since gotten control back from them, as they overthrew the kingdom) and now, well, I can see life a bit differently.

And the biggest change, or the biggest potential unlock for myself (in both my personal happiness and general effectiveness) is this ability to at least start to see the other side of the table from A FEELINGS LENSE (not from a cognitive lens).

Here is an extremely simple thing that you probably learned in elementary school or some version of that:

Have you ever been talked about behind your back? How does that make you feel? Why, then, do you talk about other people behind their back?

This is ~kind of an applied version of the golden rule (which we know I have some problems with), but the main point above is that if you REMEMBER THE PAIN ASSOCIATED WITH THE ACTION, the feelings pain, not the cognitive pain, then you can live a life that engenders more positivity more easily because you know what the other side of the table is like (and…it can be not fun at times).


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