When we ask people in our sessions what they think empathy is, the answer we get most often is, “Walking in someone else’s shoes.” While that sort of hints at the answer, it’s really much more complicated and nuanced than that.
Can we really know what someone else might be feeling, how they see the world, or the impact of their very personal experiences? We might come somewhat closer to understanding their lives might have been like, if we have had a similar experience. But it’s essential that we strive for genuine humility when we contemplate the lives and emotions of others, because we aren’t them, and we can never truly know what they feel, no matter how close we might come. And if we can couple that humility with a deep sense of fairness and justice, we can make a difference in people’s lives that goes much further than assuming that we know what they feel because we think we’ve “walked in their shoes.”
Empathy might not require knowing exactly how another feels, but it is about being vulnerable and connecting with them in a way that supports them… without judgments and assumptions.
For more, read, “Imagining the Lives of Others” by Prof. Paul Bloom, NY Times, 06/07/15.