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Finding Empathy Across the Political Divide

Elephant And Donkey. Symbols Of Democrats And Republicans. PolitNo one can figure it out. It is a mind-boggling mystery.

“Who ARE these people who support Trump?” “Who ARE these people who like Hilary?” “Who ARE these people who are planning to vote for a third party candidate?”

Well, “these people” are our neighbors. Our dentists. Our airplane pilots. Our children. Our old friends from high school.

These people are us. We are all members of the community of the United States of America. Yet so many of us feel like we are living in a totally different reality from ‘these people.’ We cannot grasp how anyone can think about things SO differently from how we think about them.

I see this problem of mutually incomprehensible realities regularly within my therapy practice. In fact, when I hear one or both partners in a couple say “we are living in completely different realities,” I know the relationship is quickly approaching the point of breakdown.

It is scary when we feel this reality gulf in our relationships. When our partners or our country-mates do not share the basic way we see things, our core sense of existence feels threatened. We dig in our heels. We defend our reality as the only reality. We hit a wall when we still feel unheard and unseen. We feel rage. The gap widens. We feel hopeless. We stop trying.

Moving forward from this point, in a personal relationship or within our collective America, takes great determination, humility, and courage. It requires that when we see others making choices based on a perspective that is alien to us, we do the opposite of what we are wired to do.

Instead of letting our brain’s threat-response system distort “these people” into a group of senseless two-dimensional objects, we accept that their perspective makes sense within the context of their own life experience. We stretch ourselves to imagine being in their minds and bodies. We reach deep to acknowledge that we all share the capacity for selfishness, self-centeredness, and bias. We find the humility to see that “that person” could be me. We come to terms with the idea that if we were in that person’s brain and skin then that WOULD be me.

This is hard stuff. Our fear tells us that it is dangerous to acknowledge that those who pose a threat to our values and priorities are in this shared human reality right along with us. We fear that this acknowledgment will feed their power or take something away from our own positions. That it will weaken us.

But in fact, it makes us stronger. Holding up walls against other people’s reality takes energy and keeps us stuck in fear. Dissolving those walls allows us to pursue our needs and preferences with greater vitality and clarity. It helps us to understand other people and allows us to work with them more effectively or to oppose them strategically. And it allows us to move beyond two-dimensions into the web of the human network where that Trump voter is also your child’s dedicated math teacher; that Hilary fan is your father’s most conscientious nurse at his care facility; and that third party supporter is the person who jump-started your car when you were stuck.

No, we can’t and should not stop fighting for what we believe is right and good. No, we can’t all get along. But unless we are ready to give up on our United States and all the benefits and protections it offers us, it is a grave mistake to think that the best way to protect our selves and our values is by holding on so fearfully to our own sense of reality that we cannot even comprehend who “these people” could possibly be.

Finding Empathy Across the Political Divide

Danielle B. Grossman, MFT

Danielle B. Grossman, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, has her BA in Ethics, Politics and Economics magna cum laude from Yale University and her MA in Integral Counseling Psychology from the California Institute for Integral Studies. She works virtually for clients throughout California and in-person in Truckee/Tahoe, helping couples and individuals with their relationships, anxiety, struggles with food and eating, and addiction. Reach out at or learn more at

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APA Reference
Grossman, D. (2018). Finding Empathy Across the Political Divide. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 25, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 26 Oct 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.