Where love rules, there is no will to power; and where power predominates, there love is lacking. The one is the shadow of the other. -- Carl Jung
The difference between understanding and empathy is not subtle. It is indeed a chasm. Understanding without empathy is wanting power over someone; understanding with empathy is more akin to love.
It is possible to understand someone and not even like them. That’s the problem, If one person understands another and is a predator, they can use that power to charm them, to control them – even if they don’t like them, and especially if the other person thinks they are liked.
This ability to understand and control without empathy has been noticed for a long time. The words, charm and spell (as in casting a spell) mean using words to essentially hypnotize people. The word “glamour” comes from the same word as “grammar.” All mean the use of words to, for want of a better word, ensorcel the susceptible, to gain power without love over them.
Certain people have an almost instinctive ability to understand someone without having any empathy for them. They are the character disorders: the psychopaths, the narcissists, the borderlines, the histrionics.
In a way, they instinctively understand how to use propaganda to brainwash the susceptible. Politicians are masters at this, and the gullible public falls for it every time.
These people can come across as charming and interesting, and have the ability to mark their mark feel special. I have heard the term “love bombing” for what they do. They can see the weaknesses in someone and know how to exploit and manipulate them.
They tend to zero in on people who are kind, generous, trusting, eager to please, self-reflective, competent, talented or “gifted” and, most importantly, people who have a desire to cooperate or work things out and a non-confrontational personal style.
But these predators have no empathy. To them, the other person is always at fault, even (or especially) if they are the ones truly at fault. For all their ability to read others, they have a permanent blind spot concerning themselves.
Yet, understanding is part of empathy. Without understanding, I’m not sure it’s possible to be empathic. The difference is that in empathy the attempt is made to put oneself in the other person’s shoes. Exploiters and manipulators cannot do that; the other person is just a thing to them, one to be exploited.
“Putting yourself in someone’s else’s shoes.” If I had to define empathy in one sentence, that would be it.
But how to do it? Of course, there is the intellectual part, which I think is essential. But I think the emotional part is how empathy really happens. And a lot of it is imagination, to imaginatively put yourself into another person’s shoes.
Any number of writers come to mind. Stephen King, for one. How can he imaginatively write about so many different characters, and get them so right, unless he could imaginatively put himself into their shoes?
Conversely, do unimaginative people have trouble feeling empathy? People who can be described as literal-minded? I think they can feel empathy for a very small circle of people, but beyond that, I doubt it. They don’t seem to have the ability to put themselves into someone’s shoes and understanding and empathizing with them, even if they don’t agree with them.
This lack is why some people make no attempt to understand their “enemies.” They see no reason to understand them and find it intellectually, emotionally and morally easier just to define them as evil and let it go at that. They just want political power over their enemies so they can destroy them, and as Hannah Arendt pointed out, political power if the ability to turn someone into a corpse.
The exploiters, the character disorders, because of their lack of empathy and their blind spots, don’t know when they are destroying people, even if they claim to “love” them. I have seen this with my own eyes in people’s relationships.
The truly empathic can put themselves into someone else’s shoes and understand them, even if they don’t agree with them. That’s the real definition of understanding and empathy.
The exploiters and the manipulators – the predators – can understand someone, but there is no empathy. They cannot put themselves into the other person’s shoes and they cannot understand their side, because to them the other person doesn’t have a side.
Most of us want empathy quite badly. That’s the rub, isn’t it? Then we make the mistake of thinking that because someone understands us, they like us, and therefore empathize with us. But if they are exploiters and manipulators, no matter how charming and interesting they are, they don’t like us, as hard as it is to believe. Because we are only there to serve their needs.