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Monk Notes 08 - The Dangers of Empathy

Empathy is having a moment.

Today, a fair amount of pop psychology and self-help literature emphasizes the importance of empathy as a means to improving our relationships, workplaces, homes, and cultures. Empathy is presented as the kind, gentle fix to getting along as human beings, as opposed to cycles of power and domination.

It’s hard to argue that understanding and kindness could have anything less than a positive impact on a relationship. 

So why don’t we do it?

Because empathy is really quite dangerous.
Not to our families.
Not to our communities.
Not even to our institutions.

But rather, to us.


Empathy is the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from within their frame of reference.

In order to see from another person’s vantage point, we have to step out of our own deeply-held narratives about the world and how it works and into another person’s — a worldview complete with complexities and contradictions, pains and joys and silly human particularities (just like our own).

This means suspending judgment and doubt, not only about the details of another’s life, but also about what they hold dear and believe to be true. Empathy can feel relatively easy to offer to those in our immediate circle or those who are like “us”: people who already share our beliefs or life experiences. It’s much more difficult to empathize with those we see as “other,” such as the vocal individual standing on the polar opposite side of the political spectrum from ourselves. 

When we open the door of empathy and welcome another in, we expose ourselves to the possibility of discovering that an opinion we hold is incomplete, or potentially that a belief we hold dear is, in fact, wrong. And if we find one thing that’s wrong, this crack can cause us to question what else we might have missed — what else about our beliefs needs reexamining.

Empathy with the “other” forces us to face that we might be wrong after all.

If it were only about ideas, this sort of empathy wouldn’t pose as much of a threat. 

But often deeply intertwined with the ideas and beliefs we espouse is our identity itself. The beliefs, truths, opinions, and ideologies we’ve adopted over time have become synonymous with our sense of who we actually are. Even if this reality is often unconscious, our ideas and identities have become like conjoined twins, and the idea of separating the two brings with it a real sense of risk. 

Would we be even able to survive such an operation? 

Empathy, especially with those we deem “other,” makes us vulnerable on the level of identity itself.

If we want to be truly empathetic and better relate to ourselves and those around us, the first step is to establish security in our own lives. We need to do the delicate work of separating the conjoined twins so that we can relate to our beliefs objectively, with a healthy distance, rather than clinging to them as a source of identity. From there we will be able to move outside our silos and into the realm of reality, where peace and solidarity flourish.

Empathy does not mean that our beliefs don’t matter, or that truth lacks objectivity. Rather, empathy is a courageous stepping-out into the unknown, precisely because our love of truth and the “other” has brought us there.

Our beliefs and ideas are critical to aiding us on the path of becoming, but they have little to say about the validity of our existence.

When our personal security is rooted in a posture that we are right and others are wrong, or when we derive safety from thinking we know perfectly the nature of the universe, one day these ideas will be put to the test by life’s many challenges (or challenging people).

We will only be able to open ourselves to these refining challenges if we hold our beliefs loosely — if we’re able to set them down, walk around them, even rearrange them, and realize that we retain our worthiness without having to carry the exact same beliefs at all times. 

When we do this, something transformative happens. We hold back the more protective question of Why are they wrong, and why am I right? for long enough to ask, Why do they believe they are right, and wouldn’t I believe the same if I’d lived the same life? 

Security in our worthiness is the antidote to feeling that empathy isn’t worth the risk. It’s only possible if we realize that others’ ideas and beliefs aren’t a threat to our existence, nor ours to theirs. It comes from the security of knowing that we don’t have to be right in order to be worthy of our place here on earth.  

Only when we see ourselves for who we actually are instead of what we believe can we do the same for others.


All the best,
Steven Lawson

“When we are no longer able to change a situation we are challenged to change ourselves.” - Viktor Frankl


Brene Brown on Empathy vs Sympathy - RSA

Sympathy is an understandable reaction when someone shares something difficult — we feel bad for them, and may try to offer a solution. But empathy, as Brown defines it, is what creates true connection. LINK

The Biochemistry of Belief - NIH

For the scientifically-minded among us: this paper explores the way our beliefs about ourselves manifest on a biological level, showing that beliefs are not “cold metal premises” but living and active things that shape how we move through the world. LINK

The Imprecision of “Am” - Seth Godin

The identity we consider permanent may be the result of stories and choices we’ve accumulated. What would it be like to try on a new “am”? LINK

Featured Art: "Woman at a Window" - Caspar David Friedrich 1822