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.