A couple weeks ago I wrote a post, “Why do people always associate empathy with feeling down?” on a topic I’ve explored before—that people associate empathy with feelings people don’t like. I find that association counterproductive and missing many feelings people can share.
A reader wrote about how the post reminded her of her childhood. What she wrote echoed something I hear at my seminars when I talk about others trying to help them when the person trying to help doesn’t understand them and ends up not helping, which is people’s parents.
She grew up wary of empathizing with people, in part because of similar associations. She learned to associate empathy with other people roping you into their problems, something I don’t think anyone would expect if they associated empathy with laughter, fun, and joy, which seem reasonable associations to me. Instead, because of the associations with neediness and problems, she avoided empathizing, not because she didn’t know how.
This post reminded me of how while growing up I used to hear, at home and from the culture around me in India, that being a doctor was so much better and more productive and more serious and worthwhile than being an artist. Even if it was great and inspiring art and brought much pleasure, it was still considered flippant and escapism.
Then a few yrs ago I remember telling a good friend that I wasn’t interested in working with special-needs children and she was shocked that being a preschool and kindergarten teacher I could be so callous, and I was like I have nothing against those kids and even feel for them but it’s not what I want to work with.
Before doing the ‘making people feel understood’ exercise, I was still wary of empathizing with people, because of the experiences where the moment you showed them that you get what they are experiencing, they’d rope you into now solving their problems at your expense or get you to doing things their way. My way of dealing with all this was to turn off the noise (all the emotional cues), assuming that this was the safest way for me. It wasn’t, it just blinded me to things which could otherwise have been a little more obvious.
Here is the exercise she referred to that helped her, “How to make someone feel understood: the Confirmation Cycle“.
I hope we learn to stop associating empathy with misery. I don’t see how it helps.
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