Empathy invites us to imagine how we would feel if it had happened to us. Our friend's suffering makes us think about ourselves. It is relative to our experience and preferences. We become like Goldilocks, testing out our friend's bed. To illustrate, let's take an event - a miscarriage - and see how empathy can fall apart.
The Bed is Too Hard (I'm having a hard time relating).
Maybe we will never have a miscarriage ourselves. We're male or maybe joyfully childfree and our friend's miscarriage is hard to really grok. We feel a little shallow in the face of our friend's grief. If we're going to be authentically empathetic we're going to have to get more information. Did our friend really want the child? How far along were they? Did they have names picked out? Did she know the miscarriage was coming? Was her partner supportive or a jerk? Subtly or clumsily we're going to be poking the wound based on the requirements of our tool, not on what is happening with our friend.
Or maybe we're sitting beside our friend on a park bench while our two children gleefully push each other on the swings. We try for a moment to imagine what it would be like if one of them had died before they were born. But we can't go there, not really, so as our friend talks we feel slightly distant. The word for this is pity, which rhymes with shitty, which is how we both feel.
The Bed is Too Soft (I can relate but I'm having a hard time caring)
Here's another example, let's say we have just returned from a funeral where we've lost two of our children in a tragic accident. Our friend is crying about a baby they have no history with. We try to be sympathetic, but in our mind maybe we're thinking they don't even know what real suffering is. This is how empathy can lead to contempt.
In a fifth scenario, maybe we are pregnant ourselves. As our friend talks about the event, empathy has us nodding - Yes, I remember when I got the news, yes I remember those first fluttering movements, yes I have the nursery all designed in my head. Is my baby being too active today? To quiet? What if this happens to me? The fear plays across our face and our friend feels guilty. We find ourselves avoiding our friend and we feel guilty as well.
The Bed is Just Right (But I'm unconscious)
If we've had a miscarriage, we'll probably mention it. While this solidarity may seem just right, it's actually diminishing - our friend's experience is now distributed rather than personal and sacred. Our story is a distraction - maybe distraction is what the friend needs, maybe not - the more intense our shared experience is, the more likely our recanting it is based on our unconscious needs and not what our friend is going though in the present moment. The experience we call-up has the benefit of being already processed; it's a more developed mental picture compared to our friend's raw non-verbal emotion. While we think we're moving with our friend, we're actually pulling them to experience their event through our filter. Finally, our friend may find themselves comforting us during their moment (and we wonder why we're not asked back).
Because of all of this, one of the first thing trained into professional helpers is to be mindful of self-disclosure.
The Bed is Full of Bears
Finally, and this is the area where I personally became interested, empathy leads to burnout. If I'm counseling grieving parents every day by using empathy I'm in a near constant simulation of grief and loss. The toll this takes is damaging spiritually, physically and emotionally. Unless I find a different way to relate I'm going to either leave or shut down.