Empathy > Shared Experience

It’s easy to relate to people who have the same experiences as us, especially the same painful experiences. Drug addicts relate to other drug addicts, divorcees relate to other divorcees (unless it’s their divorcee), people who have lost a child relate to others who have lost a child. That’s natural, and in some cases that’s helpful. In other cases, such as an addict who relates to other active addicts, it is unhelpful. In the case of addict relating to addict, they serve to reinforce each other’s addiction. The addict really needs to find a way to relate to people healthier than himself.

It is easy to feel like people can’t relate to you if they haven’t shared your specific pain. It’s nice when your friend, your therapist, or your mentor has been where you are. And if they have overcome your specific obstacle, then perhaps they can better advise you on how to overcome your specific obstacle better than someone who has not had that experience. But be careful to not marginalize yourself by thinking shared experience is the only way someone can help you. And do not underestimate the power of empathy.

Empathy is when we join another person in their emotion. This is an emotions thing, not an experience thing. If two women are raped, they share the same experience but it doesn’t mean they share the same emotion. One woman may come away with that experience with extreme hate in her heart for men. The other woman may come away with guilt by blaming herself. Can these two women help each other heal from that experience better than another woman who, although she was never raped, is able to feel the hate or the guilt (while not being controlled by it) in order to join with the hurting rape victim?

Does a therapist need to be a former drug addict to be able to relate to a drug addict or effectively help a drug addict? I think not. If the drug addict is convinced that his therapist is unable to be helpful because they have not shared their experiences, then that misguided belief itself will block the therapist’s help from being received. I help drug addicts all the time without being a drug addict. I just have to find something in myself that feels similar to them and I can join them in their emotion.

The emotion is the focus, not the experience. If we focus on the experience (rape, addiction, adoption, etc) then we marginalize ourselves and others. But if we focus on the emotion (shame, hopelessness, abandonment, etc) then we can find ourselves part of humanity and a commonality that allows us to share our pain with someone really different from us. In the experience of emotion is unity because emotions are universal. We all hurt. We all have been a heap of tears and snot and groaning in the floor at some point. This unites us. To think our experience produced greater hurt than another person’s experience is petty, short-sighted, and egocentric. Focusing on the issue is unhealthy for the individual and it divides us into categories. Focusing on the emotional experience unites us and pulls us forward.

To bring some spirituality to the table, I believe God wants us unified, not categorized and marginalized by focusing on specific issues. God also gives us increased ability to share the emotions of others. Our individual oneness with the Holy Spirit gives Christians a whole other level to empathy. God is more broken over your friend’s issue than even that person himself is, so we can weep with that person by weeping with God over that person. We weep with him when we weep with Him.

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