Struggling in a Stranger’s Shoes: Barriers to Empathy

Photo by Руслан Гамзалиев on Unsplash

Did you shed a tear at the end of the movie Titanic? What causes us to become invested in the characters in a book or movie, often even though we know that they are entirely fictional stories? The answer is empathy: our ability to understand and share the feelings of another person. Most discussions on empathy make a point of contrasting it with sympathy, so as not to break with this tradition, sympathy is the feeling of sorrow or pity for someone else’s misfortune from a position of better fortune, while empathy involves stepping into the other person’s shoes to experience what they do.

To evoke our empathy, stories boil down the experiences of a stranger to a common human core that makes the person relatable. As such, our ability to consciously tell a stranger’s story is often the key to empathy.

We experience many spontaneous empathic responses every day. While these experiences form an important baseline for our understanding of what an empathic reaction looks like, they are a small fraction of the instances that could and should provoke our empathy. But why should we consciously seek to empathise with others beyond these few instinctive instances? Firstly, because it changes our behaviour towards others for the better. Empathy triggers the release of oxytocin, the hormone responsible for trust, attachment and bonding, which in turn is linked to greater generosity and altruism. From a societal point of view, empathy also allows us to look beyond our immediate circle and make decisions that are good for the entire community. If we look further, beyond our direct community, it could be argued that an increased willingness and ability to empathise with others is the antidote to discrimination and marginalisation as it challenges the underlying rationalisation of attaching less importance to the harm caused to individuals of a different group.

Despite the fact that empathy has its clear evolutionary and social benefits, there are many barriers to us being universally empathic. No one is immune to these obstacles and even from a physiological point of view, higher levels of oxytocin, the attachment hormone, are shown to increase a person’s empathy, which is why we all connect more easily with the daily struggles of family and friends than with those of strangers. The first step to becoming more empathic is therefore to become aware of our own barriers to empathy. The focus here is on psychological and physiological barriers, with cultural obstacles remaining the subject of a separate discussion.

Limited imagination

Just as it does for storytelling, imagination plays a key role in building empathy. Since we often do not know the circumstances of another person, we have a choice of whether to ascribe their actions to a malicious intent or to imagine more relatable motives. To use an extreme example, what is the worst thing someone could do to you? Now, are there any circumstances in which you would, maybe not agree with, but understand their actions? I am challenging your imagination here and if you can think of such a situation that means you just empathised with someone who did the worst thing you can imagine. So what is stopping you from empathising with absolutely everyone else? Perhaps just a disengaged imagination.

We also need our imagination when, despite knowing the circumstances of a person, we struggle to imagine how these, for us unfamiliar, circumstances might impact that person. This distance that we feel to people of different social groups, whose surrounding, culture or experiences are unfamiliar to us, results in us having to imagine the impact of specific events on them, whereas we might instinctively know the impact of such events on members of our own group. The role of our imagination here is therefore to fill the gaps in our knowledge with experiences that are profoundly human so as to find familiarity with the unknown.

Lack of attention or application

In all but a selected few situations, empathy requires that we pay attention. Distractions and a sense of busyness can therefore cause us to miss opportunities to empathise. While a preoccupation with our own stressors clearly diverts our attention from empathising with others, anxiety, frustration or exhaustion also causes physiological reactions that prevent our body from being in the perceptive state required for empathy.

Overcoming a pre-existing narrative

We might also avoid empathising with someone because this could cause a conflict with a pre-existing narrative that we hold about ourselves or the relevant person or group. Stories, even historical ones, have a distinct advantage here as they take place in a realm that is less likely to conflict with our worldview. As such, conscious empathy also requires us to leave behind our own personal narratives and beliefs when stepping into the shoes of someone else.

Observer’s compassion fatigue

While it is a recognised phenomenon in professions that work directly with trauma victims, the term compassion fatigue has increasingly found its way into spheres such as news consumption to describe the emotional exhaustion resulting from exposure to taxing stories. It is important here to recall the earlier demarcation between empathy and sympathy, the latter of which only is synonymous with compassion. Empathy, by contrast, does not demand that we feel sorrow for others, merely that we understand and relate to their feelings. While a sense of helplessness in the face of many events in this world is completely understandable, a resulting unwillingness to empathise with those whose lives we cannot change, is not.

By paying more attention to others, challenging our own narratives and actively engaging our imagination we can learn to empathise more. We all need to become storytellers and to consciously create relatable narratives for the people around us. Even disregarding the social and humanitarian benefits, conscious empathy makes life more exhilarating and meaningful. After all, would the story of the Titanic hold such emotional effect if it did not evoke your empathy for Jack and Rose?