How Our Past Experiences Affect Our Ability to Empathize With Others?

Have you ever comforted a friend who is going through a tough situation and told them, “I know how you feel”? Such a response is usually motivated by an association we’ve made to our own experiences, which make us feel like we understand the emotions other people are feeling in certain situations. But do we actually understand?

Psychologists have long dwelled on this subject. How do we process and develop an understanding of troublesome experiences such as interpersonal conflicts, relationship failures, or the death of loved ones? What is more, to what extent are these experiences connected to our ability to empathize, that is, to our capacity to understand other people going through similar situations?

To answer these questions, we have to address two concepts that are relevant for this subject: self-reflection (how we perceive ourselves) and perspective-taking (how we perceive others).

Defining Self-Reflection

Self-reflection presumes an inwardly oriented inspection into our feelings in a given situation, why we act a certain way, and how experiences from our past shaped us. Self-aware people are more inclined to accept their agency and responsibility for the consequences of a given situation. 

Moreover, there is greater consistency between their perceived abilities (e.g. professional skills), and actual accomplishments (e.g. promotions), meaning that individuals who are prone to self-reflection have a thorough understanding of their strengths and weaknesses.

The Connection between Self-Reflection and Empathy

Self-reflection allows us to consider our actions, however, perspective-taking helps us to understand and empathize with other people’s feelings and experiences. Whether we predict how someone will behave in a certain situation or we associate with other people’s misfortunes, it’s safe to say that we assume different perspectives every day.

One of the main strategies by which we aim to understand other people’s experiences is to ‘put ourselves in their shoes’; that is, to make use of our experiences to relate to their situation. 

Reflecting on a situation that might be similar makes it easier for us to have compassion and empathize with another person’s hardship. Moreover, telling them about your experiences that are similar to theirs will make them feel more understood. 

However, our predictions of other people’s feelings are not always error-free, and sometimes, our empathy levels can get quite low, especially if we are going through a similar situation. Thus, a shared experience is often only a piece of the puzzle, and it is essential to consider the way we process experiences from our past.

What Type of Self-Reflection Facilitates Our Understanding of Others?

Studies show that two types of reflection make for self-consciousness. The first, called intellectual self-attentiveness, is motivated by curiosity and our desire to gain a deeper understanding of what makes us act a certain way. The other is known as rumination – an unproductive and circular reflection fueled by our fears and anxieties.

Ruminating on a situation involves replaying it again and again without actually considering why it occurred. While self-attentiveness presumes a greater capacity to understand other people’s experiences, rumination lessens this capacity significantly. 

When we are overwhelmed and absorbed in our problems, it is hard to shift our focus toward another person’s misfortune. Thus, the more we ruminate, the more we feel anxious and distressed, and consequently, our ability to help others is reduced. 

How We Should Process Our Past Experiences

Naturally, thinking about negative events, such as divorce, is inevitable. However, we can develop a fixation on such events, which usually involves anxiety and depression. To use our experiences in connecting with others, we need to progress from rumination to developing an understanding of what happened. 

The way we process our past experiences can either hinder or help the development of such understanding. The best way to do this is to assume a self-distanced perspective; that is, to examine the situation rationally and with self-compassion, and to focus on the reasons why it occurred.

Moreover, studies show that individuals who assume a self-distanced perspective when reflecting on their experiences have a greater capacity to empathize with others due to their tendency toward perspective-taking. 

Can We Actually Know How Someone Feels?

As previously mentioned, self-reflection plays a crucial role when it comes to understanding our experiences. Also, having such an understanding can later help us to connect with another person going through a similar situation.  

However, it’s wrong to assume that everyone will experience a certain situation in the same way we did. What is more, it can be challenging to imagine our state of mind during an emotionally tumultuous period in our lives. Thus, it’s always best to approach another person’s experience with some distance.

Taking all this into consideration, instead of saying, “I know how you feel”, it might be best to ask questions that could help you understand what a person is going through and also help them gain a better insight into their problem.

[1] “Does Past Experience Increase Empathy?” Psychology Today [Online] Available at: https://www.psychologytoday.com/intl/blog/knowing-me-knowing-you/201708/does-past-experience-increase-empathy#:~:text=However%2C%20studies%20indicate%20that%20people,and%20experience%20less%20personal%20distress. [Accessed on: 19 June 2020]

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