As a person naturally predisposed to connecting with others emotions, I often find myself caught up, tangled in the heartstrings that come with the challenges of life. This drives compassion for others, though not always in a positive way, instead feeling heavy, even distressed. I felt it important to seek a new approach to understanding different perspectives; not simply reacting with my personal emotions. This is what I now understand to be sympathy. These past few weeks undertaking an empathy project has been an amazing journey, from sympathy to empathy! I’d like to share how this experience has encouraged me to move beyond merely feeling sorry for someone, so that I can support the people in my life in a more nourishing way.
Since a huge part of the workshop experience is applying empathy training in the real world, I thought about a specific person to seek a deeper empathy connection. With so much of my life currently centred at the university (second year studies!) I first considered my classmates. In particular, Josie*, whom I shared a class but I never had the chance to connect with. Until recently that is, when her assigned lab partner was absent unexpectedly. At first, I was hesitant to partner with Josie due to my preconceived notions about people with disabilities. Several doubts immediately hit me. Would I accidentally offend her? Would she like me? Would I even know how to assist? Moving beyond these self-doubts, I took the opportunity to partner with Josie for the practical.
*Name altered for privacy
Josie had limited use of her left hand and so, required assistance during the practicals. During some classes, I had noticed that people would assume her circumstances, asking questions like “How did you break your hand?”. However, collaborating closely with her during the session I discovered a very different reality. Far beyond being inconvenienced by a bone fracture, Josie had suffered a brain injury at the age of 14, leading to paralysis of the left side of her body. As a result of intensive medical care including surgeries and physiotherapy, she regained some functionality, although her hand is still relatively weak. Upon hearing this, driven by emotions, my thoughts immediately jumped straight into sympathy, imagining the extensive hardships she must have faced and continues to face. I couldn’t help but to feel pity for this lovely, friendly person living with less freedom. Living without what I, like most people, take for granted.
All of this happened only a few weeks before commencing empathy training workshops. What perfect timing it turned out to be! Learning about empathy, in particular, separating myself from the perspective of others, the difference between sympathy (self-orientated) and empathy (other-orientated), and how to develop a theory of mind, was personally empowering. In particular, I learnt that the main premise behind empathy is two people connecting, not just a one-way transaction like that in sympathy. This means looking into my Self to understanding where I am coming from is just as important as looking outward.
Armed with this new understanding, I sought to deepen my relationship with Josie and try to understand more elements of her perspective. Firstly, looking at the fundamental differences between us, also known as empathy gaps, the main one was obviously personal experience of disability. Although it was very intimidating asking her personal questions about this, I found she was happy to share her experiences. Beyond this difference, the conversation quickly found many things in common- much more than I had assumed! For instance, we both share a love for Harry Potter, snap chat and watercolour painting. Still, I went home that day feeling a lot of mixed emotions. Finding so many things in common probably heightened my sympathy, foundered in a sense of pity for the challenges of her situation. I could only imagine myself facing this dreadful scenario.
Going deeper into empathy training, I was pushed to confront these automatic responses of sympathy. Coming across the concept of dehumanised perception as a barrier to empathy, I learnt that we perceive others with pity when we see them as less competent than ourselves (or others like us). This certainly wasn’t a conscious thought I had about Josie, but is probably an automatic subconscious consideration of people facing disability. It is rooted in the generalised assumption that disability means disadvantage, incapacity and a less-than fulfilled experience of life.
To move away from sympathy I had to push beyond this for a new feeling. What is it like to be restricted in class? Would I be feeling the intense sympathy gaze from others around me? Subsequently, I developed a simple immersion activity. In our next lab class I set myself the challenge of using just one hand for the day. Even simple, everyday almost automatic tasks like tying my hair or taking off my jacket became monumentally difficult. As the day went on I began to adjust, somewhat, to the simple actions. However, eventually I had to abandon the action during my practical class. It was too difficult, mightily frustrating and sometimes, even dangerous to conduct experiments with just one hand. Normally in class, my experience is focused on learning the concept being taught by the teacher. This immersion activity demonstrated the extra level of difficulty associated for Josie who also has to contend with the physical challenge of the lab, or relay her requirements to an assistant, unable to directly translate learning into actions.
Reflecting on this experience has given rise to two key realisations. Firstly, how much I take for granted, and most importantly, how preconceived assumptions and stereotype perceptions of people with disabilities adversely affect my views. Despite assumed empathy gaps, Josie is someone that I can easily befriend because we are similar in most other ways. I was wrong to assume she wouldn't like discussing her disability and wrongly assumed her disability greatly hindering her life. Quite conversely, the physical restriction had sharped her focus and developed a mental toughness that was immersed with humility and kindness, which is truly inspiring. This experience has reminded me that dealing with adversity in life is something we all face in different ways. It’s how you choose to respond which is important as it defines us.
I’m really glad I took that opportunity to get to know Josie. Although starting out with the intention to understand her perspective, this experience has also opened a window into myself that I am truly grateful for. From this, my future goal is to switch off my own views on a topic so that I can fully understand an individual from their perspective.
Rusali Palikhe is studying a Bachelor of Advanced Science (pre-medicine)