Empathy and the Role of Personal Experience

This is an issue to which I am yet to find a satisfactory response:

What role does our personal experience play in our ability to express empathy towards others? Is it possible to truly empathise with someone’s pain or suffering if one has not directly experienced a similar sense of pain or loss? Alternately, is lack of a direct experience a ‘convenient excuse’ and perhaps a sign of being insulated and selfish as a person?

Empathy is defined as “the ability to share someone else’s feelings or experiences by imagining what it would be like to be in their situation.”

I personally have always ‘felt’ that the expression of empathy to someone else’s situation is inauthentic till one has been through a similar experience in some form or the other.  Though I do feel that indirect experiences (stories and anecdotes, cinema) can contribute to developing a sense of empathy I tend to be self-critical and always find myself short of ‘what it must be’ to be in a situation like that.

On different occasions, people with more experience than I possess have told me this is not true. And every time these are the examples that I have quoted –


  • Imran Khan built the largest ever cancer hospital after his mother lost her life to the disease. There are countless examples of victims of tragedy dedicating their lives to causes that inflicted the same tragedy upon them. Would they do so if their lives continued ‘normally’? Would they have found empathy with those who suffered without having experienced the pain, sorrow and the loss themselves?
  • During the recent Delhi rape case, there were several alternate voices that questioned why similar and more barbaric episodes from north-east or Kashmir in India don’t elicit a similar reaction of outrage. The reason why the Delhi case elicited such a response is also because the victim in the situation was representative of ‘people like us’. The middle class which was at the centre of these protests was horrified to imagine that the victim could have been me, my friend, my daughter or my neighbour. Many of us frequently watch movies at the cinema, travel by the road or live in the neighbourhood to which the victim belonged. We can’t really say that about disturbed regions such as north-east or Kashmir. We don’t what issues are faced by people in these places, what their lives are like. For us often their story is a piece of ‘regional news’ that we read in the newspaper, they inhabit a space which is far and alienated. It doesn’t take much imagination for us to conceive that it could have been ‘me’ on the bus on that fateful day. Somehow we are often not able to extend that imagination to include the pain, sorrow of people who may not be ‘like us’. Of course, I see the danger in pursuing a direction like this making us selfish, unimaginative, insulated beings stripped of mere humanity (I had in fact raised the same point at a session titled ‘Colliding Worlds: The Quest for Justice at the Jaipur Literature Festival, see the question and the response by two panelists social activist Harsh Mander and philanthropist  Rohini Nilekani in the last part of this video 1:02:01)
  • Scenario – a road accident has happened and a crowd has formed where some people seem to be trying to take necessary action. Would you stop your vehicle and double check that the victim is being taken care of or would you feel assured by the strength of the crowd present around the victim? Would your reaction be different if you had lost a loved one because they could not be provided urgent medical help in a similar situation?

In the latest edition of the Tehelka magazine, there is an interesting anecdote shared by Digvijay in the Personal Histories column of how he was confused whether Rs3-Rs 4 was ‘too little or too much’ a pay for labourers to shift cement over a distance of 40metres and says ‘There was only one way to find out. I decided to join the labourers in their task’. You can read the article to find out his conclusion but I was able to deeply relate with the story. Is there a way for someone like me who has never been deprived of food or money to be able to ‘feel’ what its’ like to shift cement bags in scorching heat for Rs 148?

There is one set of people in the world who I know are able to empathise without necessarily having experienced the situation directly. Actors. Their profession requires them to step into shoes of other people, play out their lives. We do hear stories of actors who as part of their research, would literally live lives of their characters for a short-period or spend time with people who are representative of those characters.

The cynic in me tends to question if actors can ‘feel’ deeply and empathise with their characters and bring them alive on screen without personal experience, is ‘acting’ an element of empathy?

Am I low on empathy because it requires to look beyond the immediate environment and ‘imagine’ life beyond the same. Is that it? Lack of empathy = lack of imagination?

Do share what you think.





About amita

Professional trajectory - Literature. Public Relations. Social Media. Personal - learning to cook, hopefully drive, figure whether to renew HBR and discipline myself into focusing on important and not urgent.
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One Response to Empathy and the Role of Personal Experience

  1. Sangeeta Lalwani says:

    Completely agree that one can empathise only when one has been there, but other emotions like pain, anguish, compassion, etc may also be truly felt towards others as these are reflections of our sensitvity.
    An old hindi film song says, ‘Kaun rota hein kisi aur ki khatir ai dost, sab ko apni hi kisi baat pein rona aaya’. True, we can feel for others only when we have known that pain before. But even when we empathise we are revisiting our own experience and emotion. It is also not fake.
    I personally feel that whatever is the emotion we feel or experience, what is important is the result it produced. In the exampleyou gave of wages for cement labourers, what is important is whether the process or experience led to a better and more objective undersatnding to the issues at hand.

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