It seems that many individuals who self-describe as “empathetic” think of empathy as a talent they have for “reading people”, or knowing what others are thinking without having to ask. I think this is a huge mistake that can actually lead such people to have less empathy over time. To me it seems much more appropriate to think of empathy not as a talent one possesses but as a desire to understand other people. If we think of it this way then the ever-problematic “I know” becomes “I want to know.”
If empathy is conceived as an interest or desire, it is more likely to be developed and pursued. If, however, it is conceived as a static quality or talent, it will be taken for granted, misapplied, and probably warped into just another form of hubris.
I wonder what a self-described “empathetic” might learn from FIML. I have a feeling many of them would find that they’re not so good at “reading” others after all. Perhaps they are just adept at getting along in some sort of professional capacity and have generalized their confidence about that to other social realms.
As FIML has shown me and my partner over and over again, we are comically substandard at knowing what the other is thinking. But I hope the fact that we want to know means we have empathy for one another.
Be sure to read or re-read our previous post entitled “Theory of Mind and FIML” for a much more comprehensive treatment of this subject.