Many thanks to readers who keep me on my toes with their generous, challenging questions.
Among other things, I realise reading the comments that I have hopped over a couple of paving stones which may have made it less obvious to others how my thoughts were progressing. (On the other hand, it may be that my thoughts aren’t actually progressing at all!)
The last post raises the issues of empathic accuracy and suggests that empathy is accurate in one (psychological) sense, but not necessarily in another (factual).
But why raise the question of accuracy at all? I’ll try to briefly say through an example:
John: “I can see that you miss her a lot. You look sad.”
James: “That’s not it at all. I’ve just heard that the bank has screwed up my statements again and I’m feeling frustrated and at my wit’s end. Actually I haven’t had a chance to think about her at all.”
A. Let’s say that somehow we know that James is feeling loss, but has fixed on the bank’s problem to distract himself from that pain. In this case we can say that John has empathised with James – even though James denies it – because he has accurately garnered something about James’ state.
B. Even if James is not feeling loss, per se, but is at a loss because his partner is away, we might say that John has successfully picked up on something about James.
C. Perhaps James doesn’t miss her. Rather he feels guilty. Even here it might be that John is empathising if he is picking up the complementary position of missing – his guilt for being the cause of her feelings of loss.
D. Now let’s say that James has pretty good self-knowledge and is not denying or repressive feelings of loss. In this case we must say that John has mis-identified James’s state; despite his intentions to do so, he has not empathised with James; he has been unempathic.
The point here is that empathy is a kind of deep meeting; no meeting, no empathy. If it is wholly inaccurate then it has nothing to do with the other and is a one-person activity.
Now, why has John in D. got it so wrong? Possibly he has projected his own current state – or his state as he imagines it would be in James’ shoes – onto James.
Emapthy is an act of identification with, not projection onto. A post on these mechanisms follows.