Some seem to think that empathizing requires that we understand or embody an other and all its related meanings 100%. Well, first of all, I do not know of any way we can objectively quantify and measure such relational understanding or embodiment. Until such means become available, we cannot claim 100% accuracy and precision. Second of all, while accuracy and precision are important, I’m not sure such absolute achievement is necessary, or even desired.1 A far more useful measure would be to consider whether we are empathizing with an other to a sufficient degree, given a specific context.
Let me, first of all, make clear what I mean by “empathizing” to minimize misunderstandings. I have previously defined empathy as a potential. Given that definition, “empathizing” is what happens when that potential is realized. Here is the definition I use in my work.
Empathizing is an event when we experience a phenomena, where no matter the superficial differences between self and other, we feel as if we are embodying or understanding the context of that other. A common way to describe this phenomena is to say that we feel as if we are connected, as if we are resonating, as if the boundary between the self and that other has become blurred.
Now, the keyword here is “as if.” Because what we are dealing with is a relational yet subjective experience. This experience alone does not empower us to objectively claim anything. Take the story of me in conversation with my bi-polar friend. Did I try to verify my understanding of her to achieve greater accuracy? Yes. Does that mean I empathized with her 100%? I don’t know. All I did was I empathized with her enough to be able sincerely express to her my honest and considered thoughts, based on whatever understanding I arrived at during the conversation. Was that sufficient? I believe so. Why? Because she felt understood. How do I know that? Because she said “thank you for understanding me.” That was sufficient for that particular context.2 Is there more I could understand that would improve the accuracy and precision with which I empathize with her? Oh, I’m sure. There will always be more.3
1 The more we think we “know” an other, or that we have “fully” understood or embodied them, the more likely it is for us to stop wanting or trying to learn about them further. This means that our empathy in relation to them will be lowered. If we value the continued improvement of accuracy and precision with which we empathize with an other, it is far more desirable to frame the act of realizing empathy as an ongoing pursuit rather than a finite goal to be reached.
Renowned psychologist Carl Rogers also mentions the “as if” condition in his work, in order to caution therapists not to get enveloped in/overwhelmed by the other’s emotions—which would not be helpful to either party.
2 This is called intersubjective verifiability.
3 Take the example I gave on my last post about parent-child relationships. Let’s say we tweak the example to where the child thinks she does understand her parents. There is still a good chance that after a decade or so, she will realize that in fact she did not. At least not as accurately and as precisely as she imagined. Without the experience her parents had, she had no choice but to miss some of the more nuanced and subtle meaning behind their words.