Standing in a different space

When I was a kid, I used to hate seeing people eat on their own in restaurants. I used to get that stomach sick feeling of loneliness or a wave of sadness, like when you are moved by a song. The same thing happened if I saw someone hurt or I overheard someone say something that would have hurt me. 

Projection’s a blurry line. As blurry as the line between ourselves and others can sometimes be. 

Over the years, I learnt that sometimes I’d pre-empted the emotion (eating alone can be a chosen treat rather than indicative of isolation); and I also learnt to look the other way. If it hurts, don’t imagine it. Stop the sponge effect and make the walls double strong.  

I have been thinking about this because I was listening to a Ted talk on
empathy yesterday. I’ve thought a lot about empathetic conversations and how empathy comes through sharing; very little about jumping into other people’s shoes. This seems to require an imaginative leap that is not so present in resonance. It is an empathy which is not based on the recognition of shared experiences (I relate because I have felt the same), but in a movement into a different space. Maybe it is akin to the steps to the left that I have written about before – only in an imaginative sense. 

Going back to those sharp memories of feeling other’s (real or imagined) pain that I experienced in my childhood has raised some interesting questions for me about how we do this. Imagination is subjective and not the same as reality so how do we really know what another feels? Plus, there is a courage involved in being prepared to step fully into a position that is uncomfortable or unknown.

Sam Richards is talking about empathy from the perspective of a sociologist. His experiment, in his own words, is “radical”; but his message has made me pause –

He says: “It all begins with empathy”.

He also says : “Step outside or your tiny little world….step inside of the tiny little world of someone else. And then do it again. And do it again. And do it again. And suddenly all these tiny little worlds come together in this complex web and they build a big complex world and suddenly, without realising it, you’re seeing the world differently. Everything has changed….”

In my writing – and in my life – I have always been careful to not generalise or assume or project. I have been tunnel-vision stuck on only thinking about what I have felt, because that is all I can truly know. My wariness to stand in another person’s shoes has come from an understanding of what it feels like to have your experiences negated or your voice overpowered by the perception of someone else –

only I have, I think, gone a step too far.

I realised, as I was writing this, that empathy and empathetic leaps are not about standing on another person’s toes – but maybe just about the attempt to stand in a different space.


5 responses to “Standing in a different space

  1. I think empathy is most useful in relationships – where we can learn more and check out when we get it right or wrong.

    I think it is also possible to experience empathy by talking about our differences not just our similarities. So long as both people are respectful and interested.

  2. This post has confused me but I think your comment has helped. It brings it back into a more real context that I think I’d lost slightly, if that makes sense. And the talking about differences is so important because it means both places can be really explored. Thank you.

  3. What a rich topic area! As a psychotherapist, I am constantly attending to feelings from myself and “intuited” about the other through complicated processes. Perhaps the energies that fuel these perceptions move through the unique “intersubjective space” created by myself and my client? Research, as well as the personal experience of psychotherapists everywhere, has shown that there is so much “affecting” going back and forth, and that we are either consciously or unconsciously mirroring each other in feelings and body behaviors (breathing, posture). We find that we can actually gain insights about our clients’ states at times just by mirroring them in these ways. We can often have potent or subtle emotional experiences by doing this, experiences that do indeed help us “feel” our way into our client’s experience.

    You sound like quite an empathic person yourself … sensitive … I hope that you won’t turn away from your abilities and what is natural for you because you weren’t always prepared for what you would receive (and who always is, as a child?), or found yourself in the company of hostility or narcissism … other people’s issues. When we are more “wide open”, we are also more vulnerable. Then we have to learn to take greater care, lest our beautiful gossamer antennas get crumpled! The HSP (highly sensitive person) literature tries to educate people about this.

    Best to you … enjoy your thoughtful writing.

  4. Thanks Michael and what a thought-provoking comment! Yes, I think I crumpled my antennas (so to speak) but I hope that I can get them back now – sensitivity is hard to manage, particularly as a child, but also a quality I am beginning to really value. The mirroring idea is really interesting – and I guess it then demands the ability to stand back and recognise where the mirror is taking place or something. The subject is indeed fascinating.

  5. Melissa, I think the conversation can indeed become very heady and philosophical … even to the point of bogging it down. Could be I am intellectually lazy by now, or maybe given what I do, I can’t afford to place everything or ascertain its exact origin. So, I live in the blurry area you spoke about in your post. And I much prefer to go ahead and use my “intuition”, emotional and bodily experiences, which often serve me well. In my shoes, I am left with one option if I am to think of myself as responsible and somewhat tethered to reality: check it out with the other. Just do my best to try to ascertain … what is me, and what is you?

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