On a website about high quality connections, it’s easy to forget that finding compassion and empathy from others is sometimes not as straightforward as it may seem.
One of my favorite examples of this is the research discovery that going through a difficult experience oneself doesn’t necessarily make you gentler and more compassionate toward someone else going through this experience – in fact, it can cause you to be more judgmental and less empathetic. Rachel Ruttan, May McDonnell, and Loren Nordgren unpacked this phenomenon in a 2015 research study (described here) in which they found that people who had experienced an emotionally distressing event (e.g., bullying) evaluated another person’s failure to endure a similar distressing event more harshly than participants with no experience with such an event or those currently going through the event. Reut Livne-Tarandach uncovered a similar phenomenon in ongoing research at a camp for children who lost a parent to cancer . Camp counselors who had not lost a parent to cancer were sometimes more compassionate than those who had lost a parent to cancer themselves and who, in theory, would be the most likely to understand and feel for the campers’ emotionally painful childhood experience.
Learning about this counterintuitive finding explained a lot for me, including some less-than-high-quality-connections I have observed within my own friends and family circles. Keeping this finding in mind can be helpful in times when we feel exasperated at work and in our non-work lives, for example, the new hire at our job who can’t seem to handle the long work hours or the new dad friend who acts as though he’s the only person in the world who’s stayed awake at night with a baby. It should also remind us of the benefits of sometimes reaching out to people for support who haven’t been through what we’re going through. Although they have not “walked in your shoes”, they may be more open and empathetic than someone who has.