No, Krueger, first you have to be with me before I can go someplace new with you.
—A psychoanalytic patient many years ago accurately confronting me
with moving too quickly into a dynamic interpretation before establishing
empathic resonance to communicate understanding
In any relationship, despite dedicated empathy, we invariably have an error of parallax: that difference between looking at the speedometer from the passenger’s side and the driver who reads it head-on. We can approximate another individual’s subjective experience and reality, but we can never be that individual. One’s own model or system is not a belief, but an individual reality, “just the way things are,” including and explaining everything that validates, invalidating anything that disproves.
In every relationship, each participant must be an eager student to learn what it is like to be the other, to appreciate the delicacy of an internal balance, to know that certain words can soothe, while others bite, to recognize that the tone transporting the words can stimulate or stymie conveyance of message and meaning. To know it is only an illusion that real feelings disappear when occluded by denial or dissociation. To know that each person has different states of mind, that he or she may not know what might flip the switch to another state of mind, or become the emotional tripwire that detonates the unseen land mine.
At times when empathy fails miserably, a noble yet misguided effort at repairing the rupture with another may be to induce a parallel experience that masquerades as empathy. For example, the adolescent, angry and frustrated at parents, wants to show them how it feels and acts in a way to evoke similar anger and frustration in the parents. This attempt to induce empathy and convert the trauma of helplessness to the triumph of effectiveness paradoxically results in further distance.
We listen within the context of our own system of knowing, but attempt to bridge to the system of experience and meaning of another. This process internalized allows an individual to govern affect and tension in order to manage emotion and regulate states of mind. Ultimately, to internalize this process as self-regulation.
These are inevitable blind or blurry spots in our empathic view because, despite dedicated and sincere attempts, we cannot escape our own psychologies and systems. Our own unique experiences both inform as well as skew our perceptions.
There are continued occurrences and boundary skirmishes at the interface of the differently organized subjective worlds of two people. Remarkable similarities of background, style, or mental model of two people may appear as attunement, and the overlap of parallel experience and assumption may masquerade as empathy, yet actually preclude it. Likewise, significant differences of background, culture, or psychic models of assimilating and registering experiences may require focused attention to construct an empathic bridge to a common ground of understanding. In either case of exceptional similarity or disparity, unspoken assumptions may create bias or blindness. Any categorical assignment (the essence of racism) subjugates the other real person to a projection of one’s own assumptions (bias).
While empathic derailments inevitably occur, perhaps most important in a relationship is the authentic desire and savvy to reestablish the empathic bond.