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  • Writer's pictureAnanya Ak

What is Empathy, Really?


The word has become a buzzword. Everyone knows it exists and lots of people use it as a weapon against other people who’ve been rude (or sometimes even firm) to them.

“Show some empathy!” is now a catchphrase, sometimes used even when the person really means, “Be nice!”

But what is empathy, really? Is it an all-encompassing trait that means being nice all the time to everyone? Well, no.

But it took me a while to learn what empathy actually means. I’m still learning.

But still, in this first episode of #CandidMentalHealthTalk, I hope to demystify this word that has now been cheapened into meaning niceness and political correctness and I-don’t-know-what-else.

The Oxford dictionary defines empathy as “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another”.

To put it in bookish terms, we all tend to see everything from our own POV most of the time. Like we’re the star of our own first-person narrative. Empathy, then, is stepping out of our own narrative and looking at the story from someone else’s POV. Or from a third-person omniscient (the one who sees everything) POV.

For example, if I smile at an acquaintance I pass on the street and they don’t acknowledge me, the first thing I’d think is, “How rude!” But there could be a hundred reasons why they didn’t smile back. They could have forgotten their specs and not seen me at all. Or maybe they’re in a hurry because they’re late for work, and they have no time to even stop and smile. Or something else that I can’t think of.

Putting aside my instinctive reaction – “how rude” – and thinking of all these other scenarios is empathy.

The thing is, shutting off that instinctive judgement and thinking, instead, of what the other person could be going through, is hard. It’s WORK. Work that takes conscious effort.

When it comes to someone ranting about their problems or sharing their grief with us, it can be even harder. After all, when we’re being empathetic, we’re trying to feel what they feel. And if what they’re feeling is anxiety or pain or grief, feeling all that along with them can take a toll on us.

So yeah. We should try to be empathetic to other people’s struggles; especially now, when virtually everyone we know is struggling. But here’s the thing: it’s not humanly possible (or even very healthy) to be empathetic to everyone, all the time.

So it’s okay to be mean in your head sometimes.

What might not be okay is to say hurtful things, even unintentionally, based on what you assume a person is going through when you cannot be empathetic.

Right now, everyone is on edge; grieving for the country; grieving for themselves and their relatives; trying hard to keep it together. Saying something unkind to a friend or relative could hurt their mental health more than it would under normal circumstances.

So, when you’re too exhausted or drained to feel any empathy towards others, the only thing that helps is to create boundaries where you can.

And that is the topic of my next post – boundaries: what they are, why they’re important, and how to set healthy boundaries without offending anyone.

Until then, stay tuned and take care! And be kind. Especially to yourself.


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