When I talk about empathy, I often begin with this example: If you see someone banging a nail into a wall and they hit their thumb with the hammer, you say “Ouch!” and you feel your stomach clenching. That’s empathy. It’s the direct, automatic form of empathy where you feel what that person feels in that moment. Your eyes register the event and your body and mind respond as if you had hit your own thumb with that hammer. We can say, “I feel your pain”, and we really do –  all that’s missing is the actual pain.

Notice that empathizing with an ‘ouch’ does not necessarily include sympathy or compassion.We may rush to help, offering sympathy and advice – “Run it under the cold tap to numb the pain”, we may advise. But we may also think what a silly fool the person was to use a hammer so badly, or that it serves them right for spoiling that lovely expanse of white wall with a nail for an ugly notice. What happens after does not take away from the fact that empathy was experienced.

When empathy is experienced for more acute suffering or emotional pain, it is harder to separate the empathy experience from responses to the empathy, to understand someone’s suffering but then do nothing compassionate as a result. As a researcher, I make that separation in order to understand the processes of empathy more fully.

I also think that understanding the experience of empathy separately from responses to it can help make a better world. When a charity shows us pictures of suffering children, it wants us to say “Ouch!”, but it wants us also to help change things, usually by donating money. However, that is often not the response generated. Sometimes it may be annoyance: “Get out of my face. It’s too early in the morning for this.” Or a complicated chain of emotions that link into pity, anger, and frustration to produce denial and excuses: “I can’t do anything with such a problem (even though I feel so sorry for those children)…It’s the politicians fault – they’re all so corrupt… Why do they have so many children if they can’t feed them?”  This is not a failure of empathy; the ‘ouch’ of empathy has probably happened. It is a failure to respond to empathy with the hoped-for action.

The <hammer – thumb – ouch> example reminds us that our bodies, and minds, are tuned for empathy with other people. Lack of this kind of empathy seems to be quite rare. Lack of compassionate response to that empathy is much more common. It gets blocked at source or denied afterwards.

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  1. […] an earlier post I described the ‘ouch’ moment of empathy. There you are, watching your friend hammering a […]

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