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When Empathy Goes Wrong

Empathetic behaviors that need to stop.

I think we can all agree these last few years have been trying. As a black woman in this country, I have felt my share of the ills of this society in a visceral sense. With the amount of vitriol swirling through the air, breathing can feel like suffocating, and sometimes even the people trying to help feel like another hand to the throat. It’s exhausting, which brings me to the gym—

I’m a stationary bike girl, myself. I like to put on my headphones, turn up the music, and get lost. My workout time is my escape time. I workout alone. I don’t use the time for small talk or to meet new people. I am there to get my heartrate up and my mind clear. Nothing more.

At this point, you’re probably wondering; where are you going with this? Patience.

During a recent visit, as I pedaled hard and fast on my favorite bike, Jamiroquai’s “Canned Heat” came blaring through my headphones. To put it lightly… this song is my jam. And, it’s not a song in which I invite interruption. So, to say the gentle tap on my shoulder was unwelcome, would be a marked understatement.

As I reluctantly removed my ears from their melodious cocoons, I expected to be met with some type of emergency. So, you can imagine my surprise at what came next.

This woman, whom I had seen a handful of times at the gym but never spoken to, looked me dead in the eyes and said, “It’s terrible, isn’t it? What’s happening in the world?”

I was dumfounded.

Looking back, I can only assume I looked up at the TV screen. Perhaps, I even made a face. Otherwise, what would have demanded that this woman infringe upon my workout?

“I suppose so,” I replied, not particularly interested in engaging. I just wanted to get back to the canned heat in my heels, but she pressed on.

“I don’t even know what to say to my black friends. It hurts me so much. I’m so sorry for what you’re going through.”

I searched my brain for a response, but all I could come up with was, “I’m good.”

She was clearly waiting for more—a thank you, a high-five, something—but I had nothing more to give her. So, I put my headphones back on.

By then, the song had ended, and I was left annoyed.

Empathy, defined as the ability to understand and share the feelings of another, is a beautiful thing. But when empathy misses the mark, it borders on condescending, oftentimes jumping right into the pool of patronizing. Because, in the absence of shared experience, empathy feels a lot more like pity— and pity is demeaning.

So, back to the gym.

On one hand, I don’t think there was maliciousness in this woman’s intent, but I do believe her approach betrayed that intent. I didn’t feel empathy, I felt insult. You may be thinking, that woman is crazy, I would never do something like that. And to that I say, don’t be so sure.

And, I offer five character types whose “empathetic” behaviors need to stop immediately:

1. The Unsolicited Savior // You may see a person sitting silently to themselves. This person may have a contemplative look on their face while simultaneously being a member of any number of typically marginalized groups. This is not an invitation for you to commiserate. In doing so, you make the very ignorant assumption that that human is in pain simply by being.

2. The One Who’s Never Stepped A Foot in Your Shoes // Empathy is rooted in the ability to share in another’s feelings, but when you lack shared experience, how do you share in feeling without diminishing another’s experience? This is when the act of listening comes into play. There’s no need to place your own experience at the forefront of the conversation when that experience has no bearing on the conversation. Perhaps instead of leaping into tit-for-tat experience, simply acknowledge the shared emotion. There’s nothing more human than “going through it.” That’s a thing we can all share.

3. The Person Who Insists on Telling You About Your Feelings // People react to circumstances in all kinds of ways, and each person is entitled to their own response. Oftentimes, in well-meaning attempts to show empathy, we tell others how they should be feeling so we can share in their experience. Let this serve as a gentle reminder: don’t do that. People will laugh when you think they should cry and smile when you’re sure they should scream. Let them.

4. The Empathic Excuser // From a broader perspective, empathy is occasionally used as an act of persuasion. When this is the case, empathy can serve as an excuse for bad behavior. You generally see this when an excuser feigns empathy towards shameful or reprehensible groups with the aim of gaining favor —or not losing favor—of sympathetic observers. Don’t fool yourself, this isn’t empathy. It’s not putting yourself in another’s persons shoes – it’s just acting like a jerk.

5. The Emotionally Unintelligent // In addition to empathy, emotional intelligence—or “the capacity to be aware of, control, and express one’s emotions, and to handle interpersonal relationships judiciously and empathetically”—is a high point of conversation. I like to call this an ability to read the room, and it goes hand-in-hand with empathy. Whenever you approach another person, awareness of your emotions and the ability to control the expression of those emotions are the cornerstones of emotional intelligence. Any person who lacks that awareness or ability will likely end up in one of the four categories listed above.

So, that’s the list, but please don’t misunderstand me—I know the importance of empathy. These days, when it seems there has never been a more vital time to feel with others, you could say it’s essential.

My hope is that the desire to show empathy only grows and spreads. We need to see ourselves in other people, and to see them in us. But, doing that means there is no hierarchy, there’s no position of power, and there’s no Trojan horse. So be empathetic. Show empathy in every situation that calls for it. Just use your head as well as your good heart.

For examples of empathy in action, check out SoulPancake’s series THE SCIENCE OF EMPATHY 

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