Is Personal Experience Crucial for Empathy?

Empathy is the ability to be ‘in’ a feeling with someone. But does that mean we have to have had the same or similar personal experience? When personal experience is lacking, are we still able to be empathetic? And if we’re not, what does that mean for the crucial emotional support that happens when we display empathy? And the connections we build when we use it? Without empathy, do we miss out on these important aspects for our mental health? Or, perhaps, personal experience can be helpful but isn’t crucial to empathy?

I Know What That’s Like

It can be tempting to share our own personal experiences when someone shares something difficult with us. We may think it can diffuse some of the tension or make the person feel less alone. It may also assure the that we understand them. However, when someone has had the same or similar experience to us. It’s easy for us to project our own experiences or feelings onto them. Assuming that the same event means the same experiences or feelings. Leading us to make assumptions about what someone has experienced.

Likewise, when we use our empathy because we’ve had a same or similar experience. We tap into our own similar life experiences or feelings. Remembering these times can leave us feeling vulnerable. So, it’s imperative that if we are tapping into those perosnal experiences and potentially hard emotions for us to recall. That we remember to look after ourselves as well as the person we are supporting. We can do this by thinking about when we may need to take a step back, talk to someone for our own benefit or practise some self-care.

Lastly, the pitfalls or sharing our own experience may mean that we end up talking about our own feelings. And thereby making the conversation about ourselves. At which point we may lose the connection with the person we’re meant to be supporting. We subvert the hierarchy by making the conversation about us. Or even, making the other person worry about us. When the aim of our conversation weas to focus on them and what they are experiencing.

Being able to say I know what that’s like can be really comforting for people. It can help them feel less alone when they have shared something personal or particularly difficult. But there are certainly pitfalls to sharing our own personal feelings or experiences. So, whilst there may be good reason to share our own personal experiences in order to be empathetic. There are things to be aware of.

For A Guide to Empathy Fatigue read here.

Personal Experience = Empathy

So, do we need personal experience to be empathetic? Empathy is a skill that we can learn. Which would suggest that we don’t need personal experience to practise it. Empathy is also a key skill for many caring professions. And there’s no way we can all have experienced everything that life has to offer. Just from a logical stand point, it would suggest that empathy is something we can display even when we don’t have the same personal experience.

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

We may wish to consider that personal experience may make it easier to display empathy. Especially if we’ve found it hard too. And have managed to achieve some distance from the experience and therefore can help. Many of us will understandably want to use our experiences to help others. We may also not need to have the same experience; given that two of the same experiences can elicit different emotions in people. Therefore, it may not be the similar personal experience that we need. But being able to tap into similar emotions, that we are likely to have experienced, albeit for different reasons. So, emotion rather than experience may help us tune into what someone is sharing with us and enable us to be empathetic.

For The Crucial Difference Between Sympathy and Empathy read here.

And, if we don’t resonate with the experiences or emotions that are being shared with us? Empathy is about being open to what someone shares and providing a listening ear. It’s ok if we don’t connect with it. Or feel like we don’t understand it. Often, honesty is the best policy here. Saying something like “Thank you for sharing this me. I’ve not had this experience but I’d really like to try and understand” could be helpful. Or even, “I can’t imagine how hard this must be for you. I’ve not been there myself but I can hear that it is really difficult for you. Thank you for telling”. Followed by asking what you can to help. People will often appreciate your honesty and possibly will share a bit more with you to help you understand where they’re at.

What are your experiences with empathy? Do you think personal experience or emotion helps? Let us know below!

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4 thoughts on “Is Personal Experience Crucial for Empathy?

  1. Awesome and thought provoking post. I certainly feel personal experience has a part to play but not entirely. My daughter who is only 13 is super empathetic and certainly doesn’t have as much personal experience as others.

  2. I personally believe (or have at least encountered this myself) that empathy does not require you to have gone through the exact same thing someone else has. It just requires you to respect and honour someone’s feelings and/or experiences. You can connect to someone’s pain (without making it about you), for example by simply being moved by it and have a desire to support them. Experiencing something in the same way does form a deep connection but it isn’t necessarily needed to feel empathy (it will help, of course). Very interesting read!

  3. This was a well put together article that I think really touched on many important points. It is true that I don’t think we need to have experienced something to have empathy. Like you said with the “caring” professions (assuming like great drs and therapists) they may have experienced some things but not all they come across with their patients. I think it is most important that they care, at the minimum, in order to provide that true healing space for the patient/client.

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