Empathy does not equal enabling

I got some pushback on Tuesday’s post about we the people needing more empathy. Let me muddy the waters a little.

You can have empathy for a person’s situation without letting them do whatever they want. You can—often—help a person who is struggling without enabling bad choices.

An example:

You give your kid an objectively reasonable task to do. They’re not happy about needing to do the task.

You can be angry or indifferent that they’re unhappy. You can be empathetic to their unhappiness. 

Maybe they’re having a shitty day and this is One More Thing. (Is there anyone among us who doesn’t know the weight of the ill-timed One More Thing?) Maybe it’s simply a task that they really dislike doing. Most of us will show displeasure when asked to do something we don’t want to do. 

In this scenario, you can show empathy to their unhappiness (“I know you’re not excited about doing that”) and they can still be on the hook to do it.

Maybe you’ll feel uncomfortable acknowledging the validity of their unhappiness without trying to fix it. Dealing with that discomfort is on you. 

This is where the lack of empathy busts in the room like the Kool Aid man.

Most of us most of the time deal with the discomfort by dismissing the person’s pain and, concurrently, their humanity. In other words, by not choosing empathy.

“Lazy and don’t want to do anything.”

“Should have locked the doors/worn something else/not been in that place.”

“Beggars can’t be choosers.”

“What did you expect?”

Maybe different choices might have brought them to a different outcome. (Is it your place to judge?) That doesn’t change the fact that they’re hurting now.

When I suggested in my previous post that we need more empathy, I meant we need fewer of the responses above and more seeing and acknowledging people’s lives and feelings.

After acknowledging, helping—if they need help. Most people most of the time just need to be seen.

The rest of the time? Depends on the situation. Too many variables for a blog post, even if I wanted to write thousands of words. People need resources and help to be able to do better. 

The more I write, the more rabbit holes tempt me down them. I’m staying focused, but know that there are so many spin-offs possible from here, from parenting to racism/sexism/homo&transphobias to toxic masculinity (and how it hurts everyone) to schooling and on and on.

I don’t want to belabor the topic by writing on it for weeks on end, but if you’re interested in going down any of those paths, let me know and we can go there.

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