An Exercise in Empathy

dreamstime_1015545I’m going to go all Buddhist on you today. I’m also going to give you a task. Do you believe we’re all connected? I do. I believe it on both a physical and metaphysical level, but I’ll try not to get too deep here.  

I’ve always done what I call “empathy exercises” with my characters, putting myself inside their skin to better understand how they think and feel. In recent years, though, I’ve started doing this with real people to remind myself that we are all connected. 

 Sometimes I get carried away with this. I was at a party at a neighbor’s house not long ago and each time I spoke with someone there, I reminded myself of our connection as human beings. I imagined myself in his or her skin.  One woman said that she saw a homeless woman on the street and gave her some money because “she could have been me.” Full of my connectedness-euphoria, I said, “You are her! And I’m you! And you’re me!” And everyone stared at me like I had a screw loose and I decided it was a good time for me to keep my euphoria to myself.

When I imagine myself  in someone else’s skin, it gives me an extraordinary feeling of empathy and understanding. I guess I’m wondering how it feels to others, so I’m asking you to try it for twenty minutes or so. Wherever you go today, look at people and imagine yourself inside their skin and see how it feels. I’d love to hear about your experience!


  1. Tiia Jones on May 19, 2010 at 9:24 pm

    I love this! If we all did this, what a different world it would be. My daughter was talking today about a huge cyber-bullying incident at her school. I mentioned this to her, and I think she had a (minor) epiphany. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Diane Chamberlain on May 19, 2010 at 9:40 pm

    Tiia, it amazes me the most when I put myself in the skin of someone I don’t like/am intimidated by. Hard to do, but enlightening. Horrible about the cyber-bullying thing.

  3. Ronnie on May 20, 2010 at 9:06 am

    Diane, I find myself doing this exercise all the time. My problem is I get overwhelmed and exhausted sometimes by the trials and tribulations someone else must live with. I happens to me with people I know, read about or even characters I see in the movies. Just the other night I saw a movie for the first time in 30 years, Coming Home (John Voight and Jane Fonda). I remember seeing when I was 17 or 18 and what a profound impact it had on me. Now 30 years later I cannot get it out of mind and how did they deal with the long term effects of what they saw and lived through.

    Thank you for this exercise, it kind of helps me to get out of the “feeling sorry for yourself” syndrome I have been going through since I have been recooperating for the last 8 weeks (4 weeks to go)in a non weight bearing cast, I had my foot reconstructed.

  4. Patty on May 20, 2010 at 11:25 am

    Hey Diane:
    I agree that we are all connected. I have done this many times and like Ronnie, I too find it can be exhausting – but then I think – if it exhaust me just to think about their situation then what is it doing to them living in that situation. I also believe stress is a disease and it kills all of us either a little or a lot every day, and we have to find ways to relieve that stress. What really confuses me is how disconnected some people are – as if they could never be in that persons shoes. I just wish people would be kinder to each other.

  5. Diane Chamberlain on May 20, 2010 at 2:59 pm

    Ronnie, I saw that Coming Home was on and intentionally didn’t watch it because I remembered how much it hurt the first time. As someone who’s been putting off foot reconstruction for years, I think I’ll avoid putting myself in YOUR skin today, too! Seriously, hope you’re healing beautifully. Patty, it’s so easy to disconnect. That’s why I like to remind myself every once in a while that I am You and You are Me.

  6. Ronnie on May 20, 2010 at 3:24 pm

    Diane if “I am You and You are Me” can I be someone else just for one day so I can have a vacation from foot recovery? I fell 8 months ago and have pretty much forgotten what is like to be “normal”.

    Even when watching Coming Home, I kept thinking how lucky I am that I will be able to walk again one day (I hope), but still have the lump in my throat from the movie.

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