Last year, I posted on my Instagram stories about comments about a celebrity who was expressing their grief publicly. The vitriol and harassment showed a distinct lack of empathy and society’s discomfort with displays of emotion and grief. In some parts of society, we’ve learned to treat grief like it’s a disease and a source of shame. In fact, because of our discomfort, we might cross the street to avoid dealing with someone who’s grieving. Or, yes, criticise or judge them for talking about something publicly instead of showing empathy. Throw in that the internet lacks a filter and desensitises us to other people’s humanness, and it’s easy to see how we can contribute to another person’s misery.

Someone replied that they couldn’t extend any sympathy or empathy to this person because they don’t like them. Similarly, I’ve heard a number of people say that they find it difficult to empathise with Meghan Markle’s difficulties. It’s like Boo frickin hoo, you’re wealthy and you married into the royal family. Suck it up! These are not ‘real’ problems. Who cares if you experienced racism or your mental health suffered?

So here’s the thing: If we can only empathise with people we like, or who are not living ‘the good life’, or who are basically ‘like us‘, that’s not empathy.

If our ability to empathise or treat or regard someone with a modicum of decency is only based on what we think we know or like about them, that’s bias and projection.

Somebody being likeable or in similar socioeconomic circumstances to us isn’t a pre-requisite for empathy and emotional intelligence. We don’t have to like somebody to recognise not just their position but that they have one. Telling ourselves that we can only humanise someone we like or pity for being similar is dehumanising.

And empathising with someone doesn’t mean that we agree with them or that we condone whatever they’ve done. We can still dislike them and have empathy. The two things can co-exist. It’s like in Gone Girl when Nick acknowledges how much it must suck to be Amy.

Even if we don’t have personal experience of someone’s specific pain or dilemma, we’ve all experienced loss. We’ve all experienced rejection and felt wounded to the core by something. We’ve all struggled. Even if we haven’t experienced a mental health crisis, we know someone who has. Hell, there’s a distinct possibility that we will in the future.

Sure, we can tell ourselves that life would be a helluva lot easier if we were rich or beautiful or famous or whatever. But even the people we envy struggle with the things we do. And that gets on our last nerve because it flies in the face of the stories we tell us about how life ‘works’.

We don’t have to like or agree with someone in order to practise empathy. And do you know what else this means? Even though we’d prefer that our younger self had not been and done certain things, we can offer them empathy too.

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