Empathy is for suckers (Title in progress)



The purpose of sympathy/empathy is

You don’t have to join someone in the feeling in the moment to be empathetic, but having felt it before can help you recognise the pain and potential solutions.

Knowing what it feels like

You’re walking down a delightful country lane surrounded by tall cliffs. When you come across a fellow travelling lying on the ground, pinned down by a large boulder on their chest. Struggling to push it off.

The “Sympathy” approach is to recognise that the traveller is in pain, feel sorry for them and help to push the boulder off their chest. Feeling empathy for them would be like finding another boulder, lie down, place it on yourself and then try and find a solution to remove the boulder from the traveller.

A doctor doesn’t need to know what it feels like to have their appendix removed to know the best way to remove it for someone else. This only works because they’ve studied something complex that has a well defined solution.

Mental problems don’t have as clearly defined solutions. The field is very complex. And most of us haven’t studied it as much as a doctor studies for removing an appendix.

So in our day to day life empathy can be useful. As long as it doesn’t prevent you from helping.

Maybe the end point here is: Empathy can improve your chances of helping someone, but isn’t worth seeking out just to help them. As each individual is too unique for you to be fully empathetic, and sympathy combined with research can work just as well.

Doctors = sympathy + study

Physchologist, therapist can still help you

Whole point here is:

  1. Realise you don’t know what it’s actually like (their boulder is different). It’s naive to think their boulder is the same as yours
  2. You don’t have to know what the boulder feels like, but if you want to help people then study boulders
  3. If you want to help or better understand people then broadly research different types of boulders as you may not realise some exist. Some are not boulders at all.

Either way, trying to move the boulder is risky. So understand boulders

It’s Monday morning, time for the daily run. Down you’re favourite route. This delightful winding passageway through the canyons. Maybe this time you can beat your personal best.

You head off, starting strong. In and out through the…. But wait. What’s that! You come across someone lying on the floor in the middle of the path.

Ah balls, this is going to ruin your time. This obstacle is going to set you back! How rude! What are they doing anyway? Sleeping? Having a rest. Urgh! You run around them, adding a few seconds onto your time. Some people ey?

Motivation to help - 1/10 Ability to help - 1/10 Personal well being - 5/10

You get back home, still furious about how rude and inconsiderate some people can be.

It’s Tuesday, you’re back and determined to beat that time. Once again you come accross the same person lying down in the middle of the path. You pay a bit more attention this time. Noticing a sense of discomfort on their face as you pass on by. How strange. There didn’t seem to be any cause for their discomfort. Oh well.

Motivation to help - 2/10 Ability to help - 1/10 Personal well being - 5/10

When you get home you do a quick search for “reasons you may be uncomfortable and lying down”. You’re vagueness returns a large number of results but gave you a few ideas of what could be happening.

On Wednesday you wonder if you’ll see them again. As you come around the bend, oh what a surprise that person is there again, lying down. Hang on. This time is slightly different. You notice a vague outline of a shape sitting atop of stranger, like a wireframe drawing. You can’t quite make it out but there definitely seems to be something pinning them down. Hmm, maybe this isn’t their fault after all.

You offer to help remove the object, but you have no real way of knowing how to. You could try and push it off, but that may just shift it’s position and make things worse. Either way the stranger assures you that they’re okay, and you continue your run.

Motivation to help - 3/10 Ability to help - 1/10 Personal well being - 5/10

That evening you go online again and discover a promising new lead: “boulders”. You read about how people can be trapped under boulders. And a few ways in which you can try and help relieve some of the pressure.

On Thursday you come across the stranger again. That vague shape from yesterday is now much more obvious as a boulder, but it lacks a lot of details. It’s like looking at a bad drawing of a boulder. And you can more clearly see the pain that they are in. It seems strange that you didn’t originally notice it. Using you’re new knowledge you offer to help again, and ask them a bit about what their boulder is like. You probably have a better idea of how to help but the risks of causing more damage or doing nothing is still pretty high. (NOTE: Need to make this part better “

Motivation to help - 3/10 Ability to help - 2/10 Personal well being - 5/10

Continue running, you get trapped by a boulder.

Motivation to help - 5/10 Ability to help - 3/10 Personal well being - 3/10

Do some proper studying

Motivation to help - 6/10 Ability to help - 5/10 Personal well being - 4/10

Everyone’s boulder is different. It’s wrong to think our boulders are identical or the ways of helping are exactly the same. But the more we learn about boulders generally and we learn about the specific boulder of someone we’re trying to help. Then our chances of releiving the pressure are greater.

We don’t need to have had a boulder on our chest before to realise this, it may help us understand how much it sucks. And may help give you some ideas. But who wants to try out putting boulders on their chest? And your boulder will still be different to everyone elses.

And if we don’t even know that boulders exist, or can’t even recognise them. Then I guess we’re all ignorant dicks just running past each other.

Moviation score - 0-10 Helpfulness score - 0-10 Personal happiness score - 0-10

Get people who know about boulders to help you and others

Imagine walking along a mountain trail and you saw someone with a boulder on their chest who was suffocating, the empathetic response would be for you to suffocate as well which would render you useless. The compassionate response is to recognise they’re suffering and suffocating (think back to when struggling to breathe or something like that has happened to you) and then help them to alleviate their suffering. That’s the difference. By seeing it from their angle but not actually trying to experience the suffering or challenge yourself you give yourself the distance in order to actually help them.

I’m not convinced that it’s possible to know how someone else is feeling. Or even that it’s the most useful way of helping people.

All the unique experiences that shape how we see the world also shape how we feel pain, and what may work to relieve it. There is a lot of commanality amongst our problems, and some advice may help.

If you came across someone suffocating with a large boulder on their chest you don’t need to grab one yourself and join them in order to help. Having had a boulder on your chest could be useful in knowing ways that might work in removing it.

You come across someone stuck with a boulder on their chest. Do you feel like helping them out? Depends? You may not realise the person is suffering. You may be so absorbed in your own thoughts you didn’t even notice them. Maybe you think it’s pretty easy to push the boulder off and anyone in their situation should be able to sort themselves out.

The problem is you don’t really know how much the

Motivation to help Ability to help

Should we help stop suffering? Yeah probably. Okay that’s that sorted. Now let’s look at how.

So first we need to recognise when someone is suffering. Let’s say you happen across someone stuck with a boulder on their chest. Are they suffering?

Okay, so we want to help this person. How can we go about this?

We could go about trying to push the boulder straight off. But what if the boulder is putting pressure on a cut or something that could get worse. Are you sure they moving it right now won’t cause more harm? How much do you really know about boulders. And does that information apply right now?

Every situation is unique and different. Say you’ve successfully pushed boulders off people before. This occasion is still different. Assuming it’s the same could well make things work. So what can you do? Doing nothing isn’t going to help. But to have the best chances of helping out you need to know more about boulders. And more about this person and this unique situation.

Assuming everyone with boulders on their chest is the same is incorrect, assuming that they must be feeling like you did when you had a boulder is incorrect. LEt’s make sure we recognise that all these situations are different. And by learnign as much as we can about different types of boulders, finding out about the unique circumstances, we can increase our chances of helping others.