Rahul Pandey

Understanding vs empathy

December 26, 2022 | 2 Minute Read

We hear people say things like, “nobody understands them,” or “that they are looking for someone who understands them.” People are being naive here. One needs first-hand experience in order to understand something, and even then, one may not understand it entirely because one may not go through all the possible emotions for a given scenario.

For example, if a friend of mine has failed an exam, I would not understand what they might be going through if I have never failed. And even if I had failed, given that our life experiences are different, we would experience and react differently. I may have gotten depressed, whereas, that might have gotten angry. Getting angry (at oneself, the system, teacher, friends, etc.), Thinking of quitting the subject because they think they were not cut out for the subject, getting a reality check and working seriously, just not caring because they’re not interested in the subject (because the teacher is bad or because your friend also doesn’t like the subject, etc.), And many more. It’s not possible to understand all the possible scenarios.

What we are truly looking for, is people who can empathise. Who don’t understand but who try to understand. Who can put themselves in our scenario and try to understand our emotions.

For example, as a man, I would never go through what women go through in society. It would always be a second or a third-hand experience. But I can try to understand. I can only try to understand by putting myself in their shoes. Empathise.

Also, having first-hand experience can mean nothing. There are women who have been consumed by society and don’t understand the problems that other women go through.


We have an extreme version of this as well in the form of expectations from society about experiences one should have - “places to travel to in your 20s”, “books to read in your 20s”, “you should have had relationships”, “you should have had a heartbreak”, “you should have a job you love”, etc. These are prescriptive in nature. People feel guilty about not being able to experience them. And I would say it’s okay to not experience them. It is a matter of privilege. Not everyone has that. It’s okay not to have first-hand experience all the time. Second or third-hand is okay. Just empathise.

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