“For there is nothing heavier than compassion. Not even one’s own pain weighs so heavy as the pain one feels with someone, for someone, a pain intensified by the imagination and prolonged by a hundred echoes.”
– Milan Kundera
Recent controversial comments by Katie Hopkins, in which she (amongst other things) labels migrants as ‘a plague of feral humans’, reflect what we could perceive to be a wider social problem: a lack of empathy. Therapists and trainees know that the capacity to really understand how someone else feels, to see the world from their perspective, without analysis or judgement, is a deceptively challenging skill to acquire.
Empathy requires us to set aside our own feelings, opinions, and experiences, in order to be in the experience of another, as much as we possibly can. It necessitates becoming aware of one’s own thoughts, feelings and ‘stuff’, recognising it, and setting it aside to facilitate seeing through the eyes of the other. Of course, the extent to which this can ever truly be achieved is debatable; we unconsciously bring our experiences, beliefs and prejudices to every interaction and every relationship, and increasing one’s awareness of these is a lifelong process.
The advantages of empathic understanding for therapists are clear: it helps us to create a space in which clients can really explore who they are, without fear of judgement, without having to hide parts of themselves that they may be been told are unacceptable. It allows clients to truly be seen, to be heard, to be felt. It enables us to reflect back to them the parts of themselves that they may not be able to recognise; the parts that others are too afraid of, too intimidated by, too jealous of. It helps them to grow.
In a broader sense, empathy enables all of us to recognise the deeper humanity that we all share. It requires us to be vulnerable; to expose ourselves to the difficult facts of our existence: that we all have the capacity to suffer, that many of the advantages we enjoy in life are a result of arbitrary factors over which we have little or no control, that we could just as easily be worse off than we are now. Empathy necessitates that we open ourselves to the joys and suffering of other people who could be us, if our circumstances were only marginally different.
Lee Ross’ concept of the fundamental attribution error highlights our tendency to over-attribute the behaviours of others to internal factors such as personality (e.g., ‘people on benefits are too lazy to get jobs’), whilst we over-emphasise the role of external factors, such as situation, in our own behaviours (e.g., ‘I depend upon state support because I was made redundant due to company cut backs’). Melvin Lerner (1977) suggested that this phenomena plays into our desire to believe that we live in a just and fair world, in which we all get what we deserve. The act of confronting the hard facts of reality – that people are often a victim of their circumstances and that personality factors do not just suddenly ‘appear’ in isolation – is so challenging to us, that we prefer to turn to the security of the ‘just world’ phenomenon. Blaming the internal dispositions of others, and believing that they are ‘different’ from us in some fundamental way, helps us to maintain the illusion that we are somehow safe from the unfortunate conditions of their lives.
Empathy requires that we drop this illusion. It requires us to confront the facts of our own existence – that we could just as easily be victims of tragic circumstances, of fear, of abuse, of oppression, of poverty, starvation, deprivation, lack of self-belief, pain, destruction, suffering. Empathy means that we open ourselves to the ways in which we cause suffering in others, the ways in which our lifestyles can be fundamentally detrimental to other people in other places, and the terrifying fact that there is very little that rests between us and those that we hate or blame for the world’s problems. It is little wonder that the likes of Hopkins are too petrified to open themselves up to other ways of seeing the world, when empathy requires the sacrifice of the illusion of personal safety. With that, at least, I can empathise.