The Common Experience Factor

After listening to the interview with Dr. Ann-Marie Neale speaking candidly about her struggle with and overcoming of alcoholism on Talk Sense Radio it crossed my mind that there are two different types of empathy and they are both important.

One is the empathy of someone who has been through what you’ve been through and the other is the empathy of someone who has not.

Whatever the issue may be, the camaraderie of others who have been through what you’ve been through is tremendously healing. This has been proven with AA and other similar groups for other issues.

In addition there is great healing value and meaning found in the sufferer who is able to give of his expertise to others in a similar predicament. Since he or she knows what it’s like, this person is best suited to give empathy and not just receive it.

If it’s happened to you, you understand. It’s very hard from someone who has not had that experience to understand.

On the other hand as someone once commented to me empathy can compensate for a lot.

There is a special quality to the kind of empathy of someone who has not experienced it. The empathy of people with similar experience is invaluable and irreplaceable. Yet there is a place of importance for the other kind of empathy as well, the “unfamiliar” kind.

It’s a challenge. Trying to have empathy when you have not had a similar experience means that you have to muster up a great deal of humility and admit to yourself and the other that you cannot possibly understand what it’s like – and to feel okay with that.

Whatever the issue happens to be, what comes next as you learn to really listen to that person’s experience and be there with him or her is a movement-toward-understanding. The closer you come to awareness of this person’s feelings the more you realize how far away you are. There exists an unbridgeable gap and the more you know the more aware you are of the gap between you.

Seeking out others with similar experience is essential. Yet reaching out to those who will not understand is a particular challenge that has a meaning of its own and is a challenge well worth taking up.

There is the challenge on the side of the sufferer to express feelings, knowing that the person cares and accepting that caring in spite of the others inability to fully understand. And there is the challenge on the side of the friend to listen and allow him or herself to be in that place and that process of growing in understanding of the other.

This kind of empathy should not be minimized. In addition to the instant rapport of people sharing a common experience there is a special meaning to the receiver and the giver’s desire to understand or be understood and the meaning of the loving care of learning to enter, however briefly a different world as a gesture of love despite the gap that will always remain.

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