“What can he know about loss?” she asked.
Beneath her question is a larger one: How well can we understand people whose life experiences — or identities — are vastly different from our own?
As a clinician, I’ve struggled with this dilemma for years. I’m an expert in treating severe treatment-resistant depression. What do I know about depression? On a personal level, nothing. I’ve never been clinically depressed, and I’m a relentlessly cheerful optimist.
But my lack of shared experience has never stopped me from bonding with or helping my patients. That’s because I don’t need to experience suicidal thoughts or feelings myself to recognize how disturbing, and dangerous, they are to my patients. Psychiatric training teaches that empathy — the ability to imagine the mind of others — is critical to being an effective therapist. Empathy is really theory of mind in action: It allows us to understand people whose life experiences are very different from our own, which is probably most of our patients, and most people out in the world.
Here’s an exercise that might boost your empathy: Listen carefully to someone you want to communicate with better, and choose something they said or did that you don’t like or agree with. Now imagine at least two reasons why they might have said or done that thing. Then ask the person to tell you about their experience — and don’t react emotionally to what they say. This is about opening your mind to someone else’s and learning all that you can. Get the data and withhold what you think and feel for later. Now, can you imagine why this person thinks or behaves as they do?
This approach — focusing intentionally, and holding off on an emotional reaction — can be much more effective in opening a line of communication than telling someone they’re wrong (or uninformed or ignorant). Just as psychiatrists don’t need to share personal experiences to be able to help their patients, many of us could better understand others, including those from other backgrounds, if we put some effort into it.
There are, of course, limits to empathy and what we can expect of one another. Some life experiences, such as violent traumas, can make it understandably hard to open our minds to others who are different — and of course we would not want to retraumatize a victim by insisting that they do. But there are many situations in which people would do well to consider the potential benefits of connecting with someone outside their particular group.
It’s worth reflecting on this not just for potentially more peaceful holidays but perhaps also to help bridge some of our broader divisions. Think about what happens when a White patient works with a therapist of color, or vice versa. In that instance, the patient and therapist open their minds to someone whose life experience is obviously different. When we collaborate with people of different social and racial backgrounds, we encounter not only the minds of others but also can discover shared interests. It fosters capacity for connecting with people who are different.
Empathy offers a pass out of our seemingly intractable conflicts; consider, say, your friend who refuses to get vaccinated against the coronavirus. Unlike sympathy, which is feeling pity or sorrow for another’s misfortune, empathy doesn’t require an emotional response. Nor does it mean that you have to agree with or even like the person you were trying to communicate with. You just have to be open and curious enough to get a sense of another’s mind. Note that empathy can even be abused: Some people can use empathy to exploit grievances or weaponize anger in others.
As it happened, the elderly depressed patient decided to give her young resident a chance and became quite attached to him. What seemed to do the trick was that her therapist — without my informing him — told her he could sense her concern that his experience would inhibit him from helping her. She in turn probably thought that if he perceived her hesitation, there were other things about her that he’d be able to grasp.
Empathy is not easy, and trying to be empathetic won’t work for everyone. But most of us are susceptible to the pull of empathy because we prefer to be understood than disliked or demonized. I’m not proposing a national lovefest — just a little theory of mind and forbearance.