Subjective Model of Self and Other

When we empathize, we feel as if we are connected or at one. To capture this subjective quality of the event, the traditional model of a static self in relation to an other is inadequate. A more useful model will be one that accommodates a dynamic way of thinking about the relationship.

One way to model this is as follows.

Say we represented our conscious and sub-conscious processing of stimuli as the center of an arbitrary plane. We can then arrange the various sources of stimuli as dots surrounding this center, and place them near or far depending on how much we can empathize with them at any particular moment in time. In other words, the closer to the center the dot is, the more we perceive them as being connected with the self. The farther out from the center the dot is, the less we perceive them as being connected with the self.

In this model, if we’re experiencing flow playing a musical instrument, the instrument would be placed close to the center. Same would happen if we’re up on the mountain immersed in nature feeling at one with it.

On the other hand, if we cannot understand the thoughts we’re having, those thoughts will be placed far away from the center.

Thus, an implication of this model is that much of what we traditionally consider to be intrinsically connected with the “self,” can, at times, be an “other” with which we cannot empathize. Moreover, what we traditionally consider to be an “other”, can, at times, be connected with the “self.”

In other words, what constitutes the self and the other can change from moment to moment across time, as our relationship to the various sources of stimuli changes from moment to moment.

In light of this, I will now modify the definition of empathizing as follows:

Empathizing is a state of feeling as if we are connected or at one. Not empathizing is a state of feeling as if we are disconnected or at odds with an “other.” These feelings may last a brief moment or a prolonged duration of time and the “other” may be anything we can perceive as an object, be it a human being, an art object, or an idea.

Two Ways We Realize Empathy

We now have a definition of empathy and empathizing as follows:

Empathizing is a state of feeling as if we are connected or at one. Not empathizing is a state of feeling as if we are disconnected or at odds with an “other.” These feelings may last a brief moment or a prolonged duration of time and the “other” may be anything we can perceive as an object, be it a human being, an art object, or an idea.

Empathy is a word invented to explain what makes it possible for us to move from not empathizing to empathizing.

Realizing empathy is a moment when we have a realization that moves us from not empathizing to empathizing. We know when we experience this, because there is a resonance we feel that moves us even if a tiny bit. With the experience, we may also find ourselves nodding our head or make one of three exclamations: Ah ha! Ah… or Ha ha ha! 1 To be clear, this is not to say that this behaviors are the experience. It’s simply to say that the experience often inspires these behaviors.

There are two ways in which we can realize empathy. One is for us to realize instantly  without effort. The other is for us to make an effort to make it more likely that we will realize empathy.

Think of a friend you’ve known for a long time. Think of a time when without her saying a single word, you were able to tell precisely what she was thinking, feeling, wanting, or needing. Maybe you finished her sentences or said exactly the thing that she needed to hear when she needed to hear it. You “just knew.” Those are all examples of moments when you realized empathy instantly.

Now imagine encountering someone you were unfamiliar with. Let’s also say that she was difficult to understand. How would that feel? Awkward? Confused? Frustrated? Uncomfortable? If so, it is unlikely that your empathy will realize in relation to them even if you had the will. Why? Because there exists a kind of conflict in the relationship that will provide resistance to the process.

You see, the basic feeling that precedes feelings like awkwardness, confusion, frustration, and discomfort is that of dissonance: a feeling you get when you’re faced with two or more seemingly conflicting ideas, view points, beliefs, values, or emotions.“What kind of conflict are you talking about?” you may ask. I’m talking about the conflict between your expectations on the other, and the other as they are. If you expect the other to be social, and they are not, you may feel awkward. If you expect the other to explain things a certain way, and they don’t, you may feel confused. If you expect the other to respond a certain way to your actions, and they don’t, you may feel frustrated. All these are examples of conflicts. It’s just that we rarely think of them as such. Why? Because we want the world to work the way we expect it to.

Some seem to think this is because we’re intrinsically self-centered.3 I have a slightly different take, which is that the necessary and sufficient conditions were not fulfilled at the moment of interface to facilitate an empathic conversation between us and that other. It’s unrealistic to expect (irony intended) anyone to be able to realize empathy in relation to an unfamiliar other at moments notice without such facilitation.


1 Koestler, Arthur. The Act of Creation: Arthur Koestler. Pan Books, 1969.

2 Festinger, Leon. A theory of cognitive dissonance. Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press, 1985.

3 Lorenz, Konrad. On Aggression. Hoboken: Routledge, 2002.

Understanding is Never Perfect

Some seem to think that empathizing requires that we understand an “other” 100%.

First of all, as I mentioned previously, sometimes we can empathize without any understanding whatsoever.

Second of all, I do not know of any way we can objectively quantify and measure understanding. Until such means become available, we cannot claim 100% accuracy and precision.

Finally, while accuracy and precision are important, I’m not sure such absolute achievement is necessary or even desired.A far more useful measure would be to consider whether our understanding is sufficient for a particular context.

Let us revisit the definition of empathizing I put forth previously.

Empathizing is an experience, where we feel as if we are connected or at one instead of as if we are disconnected or at odds.

Now, the keyword here is “as if.” Because what we are dealing with is a relational yet subjective experience. The experience alone does not empower us to objectively claim anything about the other. Interestingly enough, neither can they. All we have are two related yet subjective experiences.

Take the story of me in conversation with my bi-polar friend. In that situation, it was important that I tried to understand my friend before I could empathize with her. As a result, I did my best to verify my understanding of her to achieve greater accuracy. Did I understand her 100%? I don’t know.

All I did was I understood her enough.

Why was that enough? Because she felt understood. How do I know that? Because she said “thank you for understanding me.” I’d say that was sufficient for that particular context.2

Is there more I could understand that would improve the accuracy and precision with which I understand her? Sure. There will always be more.3

Humility is a virtue when it comes to understanding anything or anyone. Science is marked by significant paradigm shifts that show that previous understanding was either plain wrong or incomplete. Understanding is best framed as an ongoing pursuit.

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.

Cannot Empathize? Doesn’t Mean you Lack Empathy.

Previously, I defined empathizing and not empathizing as follows:

Empathizing is to be in a state of feeling as if we are connected or at one. Not empathizing is to be in a state of feeling as if we are disconnected or at odds with an “other.” These feelings may last a brief moment or a prolonged duration of time and the “other” may be either a piece of artwork or another person..

Let us now dive into the part about the “moment” or the significance of “duration” in this definition.

Simply put, in a span of say, 5 minutes, we may continuously move back-and-forth between these two states: empathizing and not empathizing. There’s no saying how long we stay in which state. Maybe we empathize for 4 minutes then not empathize for 1. Maybe we empathize for 2 minutes, not empathize for the next 30 second, then empathize for the next 1 minute, and so on. We cannot predict.

We can also stay stuck in one state for a long time.

Have you ever had an experience, where you, as a teenager, could not empathize with your parents, because you could not understand the advice they were giving you?

I have.

But have you also had an experience where a decade or so passed by and you could empathize with them, because you could finally understand why they were giving you the advice?1

This has happened to me many times over.2

If this is something you have also experienced, it shouldn’t be a surprise when I say that depending on which “other” you’re trying to empathize with (i.e. your parents), through what medium (i.e. the advice they gave you in spoken words), in what context (i.e. yourself at the particular moment3 of hearing the advice) it may be more or less difficult to empathize.

You see, contrary to popular belief, empathy is not something we either have lots of or lack.4 Even if we had empathy and wanted to empathize, there are times we simply cannot.

Given our definitions for not empathizing and empathizing, let us now remember the definition I put forth for empathy.

Empathy is a word invented to explain what makes it possible for us to move from not empathizing to empathizing.

As you can see, I model empathy as a possibility. In light of what we’ve talked about in this article, a possibility that gets realized if and only if a set of conditions are fulfilled at the particular moment of interface between self and other.

In other words, if you find it easy to empathize with someone, it’s not merely because you have empathy, but because the necessary and sufficient conditions have been fulfilled in that moment of interface with that other, through the medium used. On the other hand, if you did not find it easy, it’s not necessarily because you lack empathy, but also because the required conditions have not been fulfilled. 

What I began articulating in my book, is my first attempt at answering the question of “What are these conditions?”

Let us remind ourselves, that for each and every one of us, there will always be moments when we will be unable to empathize with a certain other, through a certain medium, in a certain context. This does not make us necessarily lacking in empathy. It may simply mean that our empathy cannot always realize instantly as if an involuntary reflex. Sometimes steps need to be taken before we can realize empathy.


1 The classic example is advice about parenting, but I don’t yet have kids, so I don’t feel qualified to use that as an example.

2 Usually in the form of an “a-ha moment.”

3  This is not only about the limited knowledge and experience I had as a teenager, but also being in the mindset of not wanting to hear what my parents had to say or being distracted at that particular moment thinking about other things while my parents were speaking to me.

4  To this day, there is no objective, accurate, and universal way to quantify empathy, so as to be able to definitively claim that someone has lots of or are lacking in empathy.