You are not empathic.
I’m sorry, it is true. This is mainly because you have become confused about what empathy is.
What you experience when you believe you are being empathic is the exact inverse of empathy.
In empathy, we approach an actual person with the intention of acquiring a new or modified understanding of how they interpret and respond to the world, because the understanding we currently have is inadequate for making sense of their emotions, beliefs and behaviors. We approach the problem of the other not making sense with the working assumption that the fault lies with our own failure to understand, not that the other is nonsensical — that is, confused, insane or deceptive. Once we gain an adequate understanding, we assume, we will be able to make sense of their feelings and perhaps even respond to what they experience with similar emotions.
What you do is reversed on each point. You are far less concerned with actual persons, but rather with abstractions of persons.
You conceive a person with whom you intend to empathize as an instance of a category of person — a type — to whom typical things happen. You recognize a structure: “This category of person has, once again, been subjected to that category of mistreatment by that category of person.”
In other words, a pre-existent dramatic or mythical structure has been matched with a story being told. The storyline itself is an embellished variant of a familiar myth. The actors in the story are match with a mythical figures who serve as the dramatic personae. These personae will serve as the intentional objects of the intense feelings the spectator will have.
It is important to note that there is absolutely no change in understanding here, as there is in empathy. All necessary understanding in this emotive event arrives pre-fabricated and will not be challenged, but rather reinforced by its re-instantiation, which transforms it into another example of what always happens.
It will also be charged with emotions. The relating of the story is invariably emotional. And not subtly but full-on operatic. There is sorrow, despair, outrage, righteous fury, cries for vengeance — all the stuff of the Greek theater.
The spectator observes the intense emotions expressed in the telling of the story, and mimetically reproduces them in herself. (I use the feminine pronoun here because this mimetic capacity is regarded today as highly virtuous and it has become customary, when speaking of virtues, to use the feminine pronoun.) She instinctively imitates the feelings of the storyteller and co-feels these same strong emotions in herself.
Many people who, like you (perhaps misinformed by sentimental sociopath Brené Brown) call this imitative emoting “empathy”. This very natural, very animal sentimental imitative receptivity is sympathy. It is important to have, but it is not particularly rare and it is only good when tempered with reason and willingness to understand in new ways — that is, as a supplement to empathy.
So, the last step occurs when the sympathetic spectator attaches the overwhelming emotions she has reproduced in her own imagination to the mythical structure and the actors. She is then able to believe that she has had emotions about people, and she believes that she is empathetic. What she has really experienced is something like what the audience at a romcom pays to experience. Newly whipped up familiar emotions about familiar stereotypes experiencing familiar situations with familiar themes. Zero intellectual effort yielding lots of gratifying feels.
Where real empathy is needed, however, this same “empath” is intellectually opaque and emotionally somewhere between indifferent and hostile.
If someone approaches her with a different viewpoint or with feelings she cannot match to a preexisting mythical structure, she cannot compute and cannot muster much concern. Their feelings or opinions “do not make sense” which means they must not be valid and that the person is irrational or hostile or deluded and not worth understanding. If they press the matter, and continuing trying to get her to understand, and she is unable to distract herself or evade or otherwise make the unfamiliarity go away, she get angry, cold, mean, alienating, and eventually vengeful.
The children of “empathizers” understand this about their mothers, and figure out how to become little instantiations of mythical protagonists. Ordinary feelings about ordinary individuals are not important enough to warrant a mother’s attention or sustained affection — but if the child is experiencing some kind of social or political persecution, now that gets her feelings all revved up! Now the child becomes a cause she can really feel.
This is sufficient to account for so many young children manage to get caught up in social turmoil and controversy and adopt new attention-getting identities: children need parental attention and will get it any way they can.
In reality, though, every child is unique and often deeply odd, and requires actual empathy and understanding. Children force parents to change and mature and develop in order to love them fully, in their entirety. But fundamentalists, whether of Christianist or Progressivist inclination, cannot get outside their own heads and experience anything that transcends their own solipsistic imaginations. Their kids get unbelievably fucked up, but the fundamentalism explains it all away or “normalizes” it with yet more myth.
So now that you know you are not empathic, you might find yourself in need of a more accurate term for what you are. I suggest “sentimental mythologue”.
It is a great label, and you might be proud to bear it and identify with it, since being a sentimental mythologue is celebrated nearly everywhere today.
But please don’t be satisfied with this label.
Please do not remain in this deficient state — especially if you are a parent or a spouse who aspires to be real marriage.
I urge you to develop genuine empathy.
Why? Because human beings need love. They need to give it and receive it. Without it they fall into despair, anomie, self-destruction. What passes today for “empathy” precludes love, blocks love and makes love impossible — even between a mother and her child.