Empathy vs. Sympathy

7:10 PM

Here is some required viewing for everyone, especially those who have or love someone with a chronic illness. It's a video from Royal Society of Arts, based off of a talk by Dr. Brene Brown.

This blog post will make a little more sense if you actually watch the two-minute video, but if you have a short attention span like I do, I'll do my best to walk you through it.

The narrator begins by summarizing the two like this: Empathy fuels connection. Sympathy drives disconnection. You know the empathetic people in your life. The ones who not only listen, but hear you. The ones who help you understand feelings that you might not even know you're experiencing. The ones who you consistently return to because they refill you.

There are four qualities of empathy, she goes on to say...
  1. Perspective taking
  2. Staying out of judgment
  3. Recognizing emotion in other people
  4. Communicating that
When you're in a dark, scary and lonely hole in your life, empathy says, "Hey, I know what it's like down here. And you're not alone."

Sympathy, on the other hand, looks down from above that hole you're in and says, "Oof. That's pretty bad, huh?" You know those people, too. The ones who say you can vent to them, but it seems they're not connecting with you. That their mind is completely somewhere else.

Whereas empathy is a vulnerable, self-aware choice, sympathy distances itself, drawing a silver lining around whatever you're experiencing. As the narrator says, no empathetic statement has ever started with "At least..."

I'm sure you've heard them, if you have a chronic illness.

"At least you don't have cancer."
"At least you're not dying."
"At least you have health insurance."
"At least you're not as sick as this other person I know."

Truth is, we've all done this, whether intentional or not. I know that I've done it to people, and I know that I've done it to myself. I've distanced myself from my own emotions and issues with statements like this. Because they're painful sometimes, and they're not always easy to manage.

A lot of times, as Dr. Brown says, when you share these problems or frustrations with other people, they'll try to fix them or say something to make it better. But as you already know, it's unlikely that a response will make you forget about what's bothering you. It's the connection that makes you feel better.

That's why sometimes the best thing to say is "You know, I really don't know what to say. But I'm so glad that you told me."

[End video summary. Begin commentary.]

I love this because we've all been there. Whether we've vented about an illness, a break-up, a death or even just a problem at work, we've all experienced reactions from empathetic and sympathetic people.

This video really encouraged me to be mindful of how I talk to others. Although I can't pull out specific examples, I know there have been times I've defaulted to being the sympathetic person, instead of the empathetic person. 

As the video points out, it's just easier and less painful sometimes. But I also know that hearing these type of responses tends to make things feel more uncomfortable, rather than encouraging.

There have been times I've walked away from conversations with sympathetic people and felt drained and discouraged. Maybe I really shouldn't be complaining because other people have it worse than I do. Maybe I need to stop whining about my pills not working or feeling sick for weeks because, hey, I'm not dying.

As I've said in previous blog posts, yes, absolutely. There are millions of people out there who have it worse than you, no matter what you're facing. But that doesn't invalidate your experience, your feelings or your pain.

I always say that I hate when people say things like, "I feel sick... But not as sick as you, I'm sure. I should stop complaining." No! I want you to complain! I want to connect with you and support you and maybe even realize something about my own concerns in talking to you about how you're feeling. 

I don't care if you just have a cold, and that's all that's bothering you. Tell me about it. I never want to drive away someone just because I "have it worse" than they do.

In knowing all this, I realize it's my responsibility to ensure empathy in my relationships goes both ways. I've been guilty of being so absorbed in my own problems that I don't want to be empathetic at that moment. There are times I do want to judge or refuse to take another person's perspective, just because it isn't the one that I would have.

But at the end of the day, when does that ever help another person? You can't change what a person feels. But you can love them and support them through it.

So I'm committing to being a more empathetic person, even if there are perspective and feelings that are difficult to take on. Because I know how important that personal connection is to me and how much I need to give it to other people.

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