I have never experienced empathy. I used to think I was a sociopath. Or at least autistic.
I’m not. Rather, I just don’t know how to empathize.
Empathy and sympathy are nearly identical, except for in one crucial respect.
Here is how I see it.
Empathy: the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.
Sympathy: merely understanding.
I proudly experience sympathy. I can understand why individuals feel the emotions they do. I also feel like I sometimes feel a general “badness” when I know that they are feeling a negative emotion. But, I cannot get inside their head to feel their pain.
When I say “I feel your pain,” it is a mere manner of speech. I, by no means, understand what it is like to feel someone else’s mental discomfort.
I think this is because I have experienced almost no mental discomfort in my own life. I have the fortunate blessing of being troubled by very few things. By this, I mean two things. First, I have had very few hardships. Second, I respond very well to the hardships I face.
I can’t think of the last time that I was depressed. Sometimes I cry, but I really like crying. It feels really cathartic and reminds me that I am human.
I think that my own lack of suffering makes me unable to experience empathy because I do not have the ability to share the feelings of another. Instead, I am forced to merely understand. Though, I don’t think that I really understand.
Rather, I want to offer an alternative definition of sympathy:
feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else’s misfortune
I know that I feel a sort of yucky feeling when I hear a really sad story. My ability to empathize must utilize judgments about whether I think an emotional response is justified. I’m not sure how I make these decisions, but I think it is based on some sort of conditioning.
I wonder if empathy is the cross-application of one’s experience suffering applied to the story of another. I also wonder what neural mechanisms are involved in sympathy/empathy. If there is brain localization, I wonder if empathy is just a lot of empathy, or if it is a part of the brain involved with memory.