r/MensLibIndia 101: Empathy and Self-Awareness
There’s this wonderful line in Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” that goes: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view. You’d have to climb inside of skin, walk around in it.”
This quote stuck with me, because it’s such a wonderful way of talking about empathy and is from the same school of thought that asks us to “walk a mile in someone else’s shoes”. The reason the quote from Atticus hits harder is because it quite elegantly deconstructs the idea of empathy, that there are a multitude of factors: race, gender, sex, class, and much more, and not just their present situation.
Before we get into the nitty-gritty, here’s my introductory post about this series of articles/posts. Give it a read first. You’re back or you already know? Good. Don’t none of y’all complain about how I’m talking basic shit here. Capisce?
Now. Empathy and Sympathy are two traits that are often seen as positive; empathy more so than sympathy. There is a clear delineation between the two and this distinction is very fucking important because it ties into this magical and wonderful concept called ‘validation’.
Say, you’re going through a rough patch of your life. Maybe you fucked up an interview or you didn’t prep enough for an exam (ooh boy that’s a bit close to home lmao). So, you decide to go and talk to a good friend of yours, you know, to vent. Now while I don’t know how “your” friend would react, a simple difference between a sympathetic friend and an empathetic friend would be as follows:
- A sympathetic friend would say “poor you” or “shit, that sucks”.
- An empathetic friend would say something along the lines of “I can understand/imagine how that feels. That sucks.”
Both are similar. Both validate what you feel but only one validates how or why you’re feeling whatever emotion it is. You’re more likely feel like you’ve been heard with the second response because they’re explicitly talking about how what you’re feeling, be it anger, sadness, or anything, is valid and that they’re listening to that, they’re listening to you, as opposed to reacting to what happened to you.
And so, Empathy, I feel, is the foundation for any if not all leftist and liberal ideas. It starts here, by understanding someone else, despite a difference in perspective and lived experiences. But empathy doesn’t stand on its own. There is something else that is equally important, imo.
Self-Awareness, simply put, is understanding the parts that make you up as a whole and being aware of them. This along with the help of empathy and a little bit intersectionality, puts you on the way to understand what this and by extension what we’re all about.
Yes. I said the spooky word. Intersectionality. If you want to read my ramble about it, go and give this link a read. No, it’s not a rick-roll. Yes, I’m that old.
Now that you’re back, let’s pick an example. And since I’m the guinea pig here, let’s do one of my comments and see why I wrote what I wrote the way I wrote it. We’ll be talking about a comment I made on a post in r/TwoXIndia. The post asks about early indicators of abusers from the perspective of a romantic/sexual relationship.
TW/CW: If you plan on checking the thread in addition to my comment, be warned that there will be mentions of physical and sexual abuse, manipulation tactics, triggers for trauma. You are warned.
I really don’t want to toot my horn because I would have honestly preferred to talk about an example that is very unbiased but this isn’t supposed to be an exhaustive and perfect post anyway. This comment is a quick and dirty example of this kind of intersectionality you can find with just a bit of empathy and self-awareness.
So, a few things before we continue, I live on the aroace spectrum. I’m a guy (tbf, that’s debatable but not the point). I’ve never had an abusive romantic or sexual relationship. But (and this is a BIG thicc but), I have a familial relationship that was emotionally abusive, the one with my uncle. This is the intersection. We have different experiences, different lives, different ‘almost everything’ but this is the experience I can share and so I did.
That’s how it all worked together. I was self-aware to know that my experiences didn’t have a direct match, but with intersectionality, I knew there was an indirect match. So, the easiest way to start being good is being empathetic and highly self-aware, right?
Well… Not exactly. This is Dr. K talking about how too much self-awareness is a problem. The entire video isn’t relevant to our discussion, to be honest, and I’ll be talking about my insights from the video for any of you folks who can’t watch it at the moment, but if you want to go check the video out, check it out.
Insights from the video:
Human beings are supposed to have this neurological network in our brains, this thing called the ‘Default Mode Network’. I’ll leave the biology to the experts and so we’ll look at this from the layperson’s point of view. We know that as human beings, we’re capable of looking at our actions and treating “ourselves” as the protagonist of our life. This kind of meta level analysis isn’t present in animals.
To rip off Dr. K’s example slightly, an animal like a deer would be okay if it failed at finding food in ten different places but we humans wouldn’t be fine if we sent in job applications to ten places and didn’t hear back from them. We’d try to look at what’s wrong with us and this is the same self-awareness I was talking about earlier.
While my example and by extension Dr. K’s IRL example has a counter in the form of “Well, what if something was wrong with us” that’s the point. If you knew to stop there and if you knew that you were fine, there’s no issue. But a hyperactive default mode network is seen in people with depression and so the threshold for failure goes down and the meta level analysis is harsher.
Why am I saying this now?
We are complex creatures. For example, while I was in undergrad, I was obsessed with behavioral psychology to the point where I was underperforming in exams. I was a EE student. And it all started because of a TV show. Ideas are addictive. I don’t want anyone to hyper fixate on being empathetic or self-aware.
Highly self-aware and highly empathetic people are vulnerable to posts/comments/content that’ are tailored to incite negative emotion. There is no ‘goldilocks zone’ for how empathetic or self-aware you should be. Just know that you have every right to disengage, leave, ignore when you feel uncomfortable being self-aware or being empathetic. There is no onus on you to stay if the discussion or argument turns into an ad-hominem.
Yes, you could argue this kind of insight I have, didn’t appear magically overnight and I’d agree whole-heartedly. It has taken me years of trying to figure out what was right and what felt right when online discourse was like the Wild West. And I’m definitely grateful to the people who helped me get here. It’s why I’m saying all of this y’all. We all start somewhere. Start here.
I’ve been noobhemingway.