What’s the difference between empathy and accepting mistreatment?
Empathy is the capacity to imagine someone else’s perspective—how that person sees the world. It’s an important skill to foster peace-giving relationships. We use it every day with our kids. We imagine crankiness is hunger in disguise. We imagine a tantrum is a cry for one-on-one time. These are good solutions to childishness in most cases. Sometimes we are off target. The child has pinworms. Our empathetic imagined reason was wrong.
Empathy gets trickier as human beings age. We guess an angry smart-mouthed teen is masking a failure on the soccer field so we offer cheerleading and reminders about how the next game will be different. We get back biting rebukes and a surly look, only to find out much later it was a broken heart (first love rejection by text-invisible to us).
In our compassion, we misdiagnose…frequently. Where empathy goes south is when your projection of what must be happening turns out to be a thinly veiled excuse for someone else’s mistreatment of you. If you’re a peace-keeper and peace-maker, the tool called empathy can be used to diminish your needs—for kind treatment, for respect, for communication. The focus becomes how to understand why they are being cruel or abusive or angry, using you as an emotional punching bag. You may think “My husband had a rough childhood” or “My friend had an alcoholic mother”—this is why they are going nuclear on me. I can empathize.
That capacity to see the source of pain is not, however, an excuse for their out of order behavior.
Instead of empathy, in that moment, show up for your own needs. Name them. “I can’t be yelled at right now. I need you to master this emotion before we talk about it.”
You might say: “I told you what I need. I’m happy to discuss it. I will not be punished.”
It’s respectful to not guess why someone is misbehaving as well. Empathy is not a diagnosis. It’s the willingness to not know why and to accept that how it is for them is not how it is for you. You still deserve to be handled with love and care, not their out of order cruelty.
This post is originally from Instagram and @juliebravewriter is my account there so come follow along for more conversations like this one!