When the Shoes Don’t Fit: A Deeper Look into Barriers and Empathy

Before the *magical* ending of Disney’s Cinderella, Prince Charming searches the land for his beloved—you know, that beautiful girl he danced with for an hour the month before? He insists upon barging in every household, and testing every fair maiden too see if they were his girl—by shoving their foot into a glass slipper. In one comical scene, Cinderella’s step-sisters try their foot in the slipper (shown in the image below), yet it just doesn’t fit.


While this is a satirical and crude analysis of the Prince’s search for love, it does prove my point: not every foot will fit the shoe. There are common saying regarding empathy that go something like this:

“You can never understand someone until you have walked a mile in their shoes”

“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view […] until you climb into his skin and walk around in it” (Harper Lee)

Like there are barriers to feet fitting in shoes, there are barriers to empathy. To get a deeper understanding of empathy, it is important to look at causes of empathy—or in the case of my essay, looking at what prevents empathy from being felt. In “Empathy for the Devil,” an essay written by Adam Morton, he explores how empathy cannot be felt for “the devil”—or the causers of a heinous act. Morton primarily explains the difference between the “why” of an act and the “how” of an act to draw a barrier between the reader and the devil. We can understand why someone did the cruel act, except not how. This further illustrates Morton’s argument as to the barriers that can be found in empathy—in this instance, the barrier is caused by pseudo-empathy (fake empathy) and imagination. However, imagination is not the only barrier that supposably blocks the sharing of feeling and empathy.

External pressures and influences can block empathy, too.  In a study conducted by professors at the University of California, Irvine Medical School found that recently, their students have been less empathetic towards patients and fellow students. The medical school has implemented seminars through which their students are trained to learn how to have empathy for others, which is further evaluated through questionnaires and interviews.  The study found that 84% of students through that they became more empathetic, or have the same levels of empathy—meaning that the programs were successful. The professors found (through the interviews) that through the seminars, students were able to find their own barriers that block them from empathizing.  The two main barriers were “lack of having attending and resident role models and time pressures” (Afghan, et al).  This study gives hope to the idea of educating and teaching empathy. While these types of seminars might not be able to help everyone, 84% is significant.  Further, pointing out and acknowledging barriers is one step closer to breaking them. In this essay sequence, I will initially propose different barriers to empathy, and further attempt to debunk them through the use of scholarly articles, technology, and novels.


Koalas ~branching out~ to learn about eachother’s experiences.

In the first blog, I will explore the barrier that separates empathy from imagination. This blog looks deeper into Morton’s “Empathy for the Devil” and his analysis for why we cannot feel empathy for “the devil.” Morton claims that without being able to actually experience or participate in a heinous act, we cannot feel empathy for the causer of the act, imposing a barrier between the readers and the devil. This makes sense because humankind should not be able to share feelings with someone’s experiences that they have not felt. Looking at an essay by Lawrence Schneiderman, a medical doctor and author, allows us to see how self reflection can encourage a sharing of emotion and feeling, and break the barrier between empathy and imagination.


Koalas showing each other the path to shared learning.

In the second blog, I will explore the barrier that blocks empathy from forming with unknown people, experiences, and distance. The theme of empathy not being felt due to unknown situations has been seen throughout many forms of literature, and a major cause of this conception is due to the innate differences between everyone in society—no two people are the same, yet they can only bond through their similar previous experiences. Distance is a large factor for the differences between people: distance causes different communities, values, and perceptions. Yet, in todays age, distance is not as much of a problem as it was years ago, due to the prevalence of technology around our world. Looking at social media, especially people who have found instantaneous fame, it becomes clear how it can unite people from all over, and break the empathy barrier of distance.


Koala reflecting upon how much s/he has learned through empathizing with a friend.

In the final blog, I will explore the concept of first impressions, and the barriers it imposes, and its overlap with empathy. The saying goes “You can never have a second first impression” so essentially, our society puts a lot of emphasis on first interactions. Instantaneous impressions create barriers between people, because we are inclined to empathize with people who look like us, talk like us, or people who are going through the same experiences as we do. First impressions can be looked at through human interactions, but also marketers branding certain items to persuade the viewpoint of customers. Looking at the branding of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman to its customers, it becomes clear how the publishers intend to use empathy

Though the purpose of this essay sequence is to analyze how empathy can or cannot be felt, it ultimately should be used as a guide on attempts to empathize with everyone.  While distance, and extraterrestrial experiences, and quick opinions due to first impressions can all modify the extent of our empathy, acknowledging these barriers is the first step to world empathy, and amending our connections with one another to be more truthful.


Works Cited:

Afghan, B., S. Besimanto, A. Amin, and J. Shapiro. “Medical Students’ Perspectives on Clinical Empathy Training.” (n.d.): n. pag. Eduction for Health. Wolters Kluwer, 29 Apr. 2011. Web. 8 Nov. 2016.

Cinderella. Dir. Clyde Geronimi, et al. Perf. Ilene Woods and Helene Stanley. Distributed by RKO Radio Pictures, Inc., 1950. Online.

Morton, Adam, and Peter Goldie. “Empathy for the Devil.” Empathy: Philosophical and Psychological Perspectives. By Amy Coplan. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2011. 318-30. Print

Lee, Harper. Go Set a Watchman. New York: Harper Collins, 2015. Print.

Lee, Harper. To Kill a Mockingbird. New York: Grand Central Publishing, 1960. Print.

Pyle, Nathan W. “How Empathy Takes Us Out On A Limb.” BuzzFeed. BuzzFeed, Inc, 14 Jan. 2014. Web. 08 Nov. 2016.

Schneiderman, LJ. “Empathy and the Literary Imagination.” Annals of Internal Medicine137.7 (2002): 627-9. Web.

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