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Disability / Identity

The Limitations of Empathy

"For many autistic people who’ve been accused of not having (enough) empathy or of being selfish, the idea that empathy will change the world can be very alienating."

Author: Mia Schachter
Photo: Kevin Domfey

It’s a bumper sticker, a pillow, a tattoo: “Empathy will save the world.”  But empathy has limitations, and can even be inappropriate. Sometimes we have to understand that we can’t understand. Empathy, or understanding and sharing the feelings of other people is not necessary to respect, care for, and be compassionate towards others. Here’s when I’ve found myself up against the limitations of empathy:

When My Neurodivergence Meets a Neurotypical World

For many autistic people who’ve been accused of not having (enough) empathy or of being selfish, the idea that empathy will change the world can be very alienating. For some, our experience of empathy can be so intense that the big reaction can be seen as inappropriate. For others who perhaps do experience less empathy, they are still capable of treating people with kindness, even without understanding their feelings as though they are their own. 

Many find it ableist to suggest that empathy is the answer to all our conflicts. Empathy is not the only way into understanding. In practice, I’ve witnessed that exposure creates understanding. You can be around people who are unlike you and understand that they have a different experience than you do without empathizing. Suggesting that this is the magic cure for the world’s ills ignores the natural variance in people’s experience of empathy.

We have to learn to be okay in the discomfort of not being able to understand, and be able to care for one another anyway.

When I Almost Killed My Cousin’s Puppy

Last summer I visited my cousin and his family in the Bay. He had just gotten a puppy who was a tea cup variety, and probably about the size of a hamster. The puppy’s nail got stuck in my sock and as I took one small step, it got flicked by my foot, flipped up in the air, and body slammed onto its back. It howled and yelped and cried. I was terrified. I thought I had surely killed my cousin and his 8-year-old son’s new puppy. Would they ever forgive me? Should I leave? Can I touch the dog? Are they angry with me?

I tried to imagine what it was like to be my cousin at that moment. I tried desperately to empathize. How would I feel if I had a new puppy, my first dog, an 8-year-old son, a wife, and so on. I hit a wall: I can’t imagine. I don’t know what it’s like to be a cis man, to be married, to have a child, to have a tiny puppy. I simply can’t know what that’s like, let alone what it’s like to be this man. 

I gave up trying to empathize and instead tried to gauge his nonverbal cues: what did his voice sound like? Did he sound angry? Where was he looking? What did his face look like? I looked at his body language: Was he turning towards or away from me? All these data points served as valuable information for me. 

It was clear he wasn’t angry with me. He was concerned about the puppy but he was also wondering what I thought we should do, in part because I also had a dog. This taught me some of the limitations of empathy. I understood that I couldn’t understand, and so I leaned on other sources of information to show me how he was feeling. 

When I Don’t Share Someone’s Identity

My dear friend Dinah once told me a story about running through the airport to catch a flight only to find out once she was on the plane that her dress had been stuck in her underwear the whole time. I said, “Oh god, that’s happened to me before.” She said, “No it hasn’t because you’re not a trans woman.” How right she was. It would have been better for me to feel for Dinah without attempting to relate. 

I can’t know what it’s like to Black, Indigenous, or any other race. I will never know what it’s like to be a trans woman. A cis person can’t know what it’s like to be a trans person. A straight person can’t know what it’s like to be a gay person, to come out, to be ostracized from a community or fired for your sexuality. A healthy person can’t know what it’s like to be chronically ill. An able-bodied person can’t know what it’s like to be disabled. A person without a life-threatening allergy can’t know what it’s like to live in fear every time you eat food. 

Sometimes, attempting to empathize can often feel invasive and inappropriate.  You can, however, listen, ask questions, approach with curiosity, ask what kind of care would feel good to them, and learn how to support. You can come to terms with the fact that you can’t understand, and commit to learning all you can so they don’t have to do the labor of educating you, a form of understanding in and of itself. 


About the Author
Mia (they/them) is a consent educator, writer, speaker, podcaster (Share the Load), musician, visual artist, and Intimacy Coordinator for TV, Film, and Theater. After spending ten years in New York working in theater and visual art, they returned to their hometown of Los Angeles in 2018. Their BA in Philosophy, and their academic background in gender studies, ethics, and neuroscience informs their work. You can Venmo @sharetheload to chip in.

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