When I talk about empathy, one phrase that frequently comes up is, “well, I could never understand what it’s like to go through that.”
This is utterly wrong, and an excuse to avoid doing the work of empathy.
You’ve likely never had your arm cut off, but if you met a person who had their arm cut off, you could imagine what that must feel like. You don’t have to get your arm cut off to know that it would hurt, and you’d probably feel bad about it everytime you did something you might have wanted your arm for.
Likewise, larger problems just require a greater degree of imagination. For example, if the arm-cutting was an assault, that’s different than if it was an accident. In an assault, you might imagine the feeling of having your boundaries violated. In an accident, you’d imagine the feeling of going about your day and being suddenly surprised by a sharp trauma and pain.
Complex emotional problems or systemic problems are just another layer of imagination. Imagine people bullying or discriminating against you for things you you can’t change about yourself. Or imagine what it feels like to share that story and have people ignore or attack you for trying to be heard.
The reason people say they “could never understand what it’s like to go through that” is because they don’t want to feel what it’d be like to go through that. Even reading the above might be painful. I know that when I imagine the experience, it actually hurts to do so. Imagining someone’s emotional pain could means experiencing real saddness or loss.
(Pro-tip: If such an excercise ever gets to be too much, you can always shift your emotional state in another direction through imagination. Like imagining an incredibly sexy person you love and trust going down on you for an hour. There, problem solved. If that isn’t enough, try meditation.)
This idea that you could never understand another person comes from trying to understand their experience only through yours. “Well, I cut my finger on a piece of paper once, so I kind of understand what you’re talking about.” No, not really.
If you attempt to empathize with the other persons experience by relating it to yours, your ability to empathize will always be limited by the amount of experience you have. If you empathize through imagination, your empathy will be limited by only what you can imagine.
Good actors are incredibly gifted at this. When developing a character they’ll imagine all the experiences their character must of had. What their childhood was like. What their relationships have been. What things they’ve been shamed for. What skills they’ve learned. What they like to eat. Literally, booking hours of the day to just imagine the reality of the character. It’s work.
When people say they could never understand another person’s experience, they are either admitting a lack of willingness, or a lack of imagination. And by the way, “I don’t want to do the emotional work to understand that” would be a valid honest answer. But don’t say you can’t.
Imagination is a skill. A muscle. If you use it regularly, you’ll get better at it. Working in the arts, I sometimes forget that many people don’t regularly exercise this skill. But if you can imagine the reality of your client, or the person you’re trying to persuade, or your friends, or romantic partner, it’ll go a long way.
Part of the reason I work in the arts is that art bridges the gap of imagination. You might say you “could never understand” what it’s like to go through something, but if I create a character that you like and care about who goes through it, you’ll feel it, and empathize.
Read More: Empathy Is The Ultimate Persuasion Tool