Main Character Syndrome

Put yourself in their shoes.

It’s an idiom taught at a young age1; I think I introduced this to my children sometime around kindergarten. Of course, kids have to be reminded—consistently—about explicitly demonstrating empathy, to friends, classmates, and siblings. Usually, it comes in the form of “How would you like it if…”, or perhaps a “Did you consider how they’d feel when you…”

It turns out that deeply considering others’ experiences is a difficult skill, even for adults. Now, fortunately, most mature adults have some level of empathy, and avoid descending into full-blown solipsism. But we have developed plenty of verbiage to describe the amount of empathy for others we expect from maturity that is found lacking:

The rich vocabulary exists because, well, there are plenty of people who aren’t particularly considerate of others. Much like the multitude of terms Eskimos invented to describe frozen water in its various forms, we need to fine-tune the description for different levels of entitlement and their circumstances, everything from Choosing Beggars to Karens. Meanwhile, there’s a perverse delight in calling out and highlighting these bad behaviors.

The less pejorative take is that we are constantly and consistently shaped by our experiences. We naturally weigh what we’ve felt ourselves over others’ anecdotes, and yet secondhand stories are more convincing detached analyses from data. When you hear a statistic for a medical condition, it’s natural to acknowledge the issue intellectually. If you know of a friend or family member diagnosed with said condition, it hits closer to home and can prompt donations and emotional support. But if you are afflicted yourself, that’s plenty of motivation to start a foundation or actively raise awareness.

The writer Morgan Housel points out that people’s mental models are a product of their life events. What may seem delusional from our vantage point is perfectly reasonable when traced from their set of lived experiences. To listen and to empathize, then, is to understand the genesis of their perspective, and to play back the series of events and outcomes that, in their totality, shape their “delusion.”

  1. Not too young, though. Babies don’t develop the mental capability to recognize entities beyond the self until almost a year in.

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