Empathy 101 and 201

I have some Opinions on how I see some people talk about empathy and I want to talk about it. Of course, there are LOTS of things I could say about empathy, so to be more specific, I want to talk about some of how people conceptualize empathy – ways that I mentally call “empathy 101” and “empathy 201.”

Empathy 101 is where you imagine yourself in someone else’s position and think about how you would feel if you were experiencing whatever they are experiencing. The idea is that you should consider that they are likely feeling something similar to what you would be feeling and you can begin to empathize with them.

Empathy 201 is where you take in that different people react to situations differently, and not everyone will feel the way you feel in various circumstances.

The thing that seriously irks me when I see it is when people skip over Empathy 101 and try to go straight to Empathy 201. It might sound great in theory, but in practice it doesn’t tend to go well.

Here’s the thing – a major point of Empathy 101 as a deliberate practice (especially for children) is realizing that other people are just as real as you are. Other people feel things just as vividly as you do. Other people have just as rich of an inner life as you do. Small children sometimes need to be coached through this idea and in my experience, some adults still haven’t figured this out. 

Now, Empathy 201 is great. It’s super important. But it doesn’t really work unless you’ve fully internalized the concepts behind Empathy 101. And unfortunately, I’ve seen people use the basic idea of Empathy 201 to excuse their own asshole behavior. It generally goes something like this:

Derriere Hole: ::does a thing that is hurtful, mean, or otherwise unkind::

Random Observe: Wow, that was a mean thing to do. How would you like it if someone did that to you?

Derriere Hole: Well everyone feels differently about things, so how I would feel isn’t necessarily how anyone else will feel, so I refuse to even consider the question.

Derriere Hole has MISSED THE POINT. The point is to genuinely consider the impact your actions have on others – keeping in mind both how you would feel AND possible other reactions people might have. This can be a lot of work sometimes, I won’t deny it. But it’s also VERY important to do, particularly when interacting with others or doing things that will have a distinct impact on others. 

Having said that, I do feel the need to add that I have seen the switch side of things as well – People using Empathy 101 as a way to dismiss other people’s feelings that don’t line up with what they think people “should” feel. “If I were in your position I would be feeling X. You are clearly Wrong when you claim to be feeling Y.” Heck, my own dad has done that to me.

This is why I think it’s so important to keep both ideas in mind when thinking about what other people might be feeling. Empathy 101 on its own isn’t enough. It doesn’t get replaced by Empathy 201, though – only modified. 

Of course, the real problem is that some people just don’t care about what other people think or feel or experience. And those people like to have excuses for their lack of caring. Still, I find it particularly irksome when they use the trappings of empathy as their excuse. That’s just not ok at all.

1 Comment

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One response to “Empathy 101 and 201

  1. >>“If I were in your position I would be feeling X. You are clearly Wrong when you claim to be feeling Y.” <<

    I *hate* this. With a passion. My mother did this to me all the time while growing up. Until I was able to throw it in her face, by repeating something she had said a couple of hours earlier to me (and I was told to lighten up) back at her and she got her. I replied the way she had and told her to lighten up. We didn't talk the rest of the ride home. But things did change after, slowly. It took me until I was 16 to be able to do that.

    Empathy 201 is so important to understand why people do what they do. They're not you, they're not going to behave like you, they don't have the same life as you. But you still need to understand why they did what they did. Else you're just going to react with feelings and not thought. Being angry at the person doesn't help.