Sympathy vs Empathy

It’s kinda hard to go back.  Looking at it the old way, the way you looked at it for years.  It’s how I felt about sympathy and empathy this month – two three syllable words that I often misspell and confuse.  I wanted to share with you my 1 month with the 2.

If you had to ask me before the month of October I would say that expressing sympathy is a safe bet for me.  If I haven’t walked a mile in your shoes than how in the world can I empathise with you?  I can’t empathise with you, my dear emotionally healthy friends – what is it like to interact rationally, compassionately with your FOO?  And my dear emotionally healthy friends you couldn’t understand the battle of an ACoN even if you tried.  You probably need to first run the marathon in our shoes before you came close.  Harsh, ain’t it?

That was my truth with sympathy and empathy.  But it came to a head when I started reading more about shame.  And more specifically trying to understand how to work through the emotion instead of hiding from the world like I would normally do.

I read more about it in the book, I Thought It Was Me (but it isn’t), by Brené Brown (not drinking the kool-aid).  Her approach to working through shame (shame resilience) is through empathy.

“Empathy is the antidote to shame.” – Brené Brown

Before I finished writing the rest of this post, I had a shame experience around empathy.  I had written an old post uncompassionately and it was brought to my attention in a kind and gentle manner (thank you)*.  I had written something I regretted and I felt bad and guess what, I wanted to numb and hide.  I recognised my numbing behaviours (I have many) and stopped myself.  So, I let myself feel the shame – and it totally sucked.

What was my shame?  Was it that I potentially hurt someone’s feelings?  Was it that I lack empathy?  Was it that I didn’t want to be seen as a narcissist because I lacked empathy/compassion in a post?  Believe it or not, shame has a lot to do with how we would like to be perceived.  My shame was all of the above and it took me about the whole day to work through all of it.  Fortunately, my bf had a work dinner so I had the place to myself.

I felt I had gone about 5 steps backwards.  If I am to develop shame resilience how can I do so without behaving empathetically.  Ugh.  Frustration was very high.  And confusion added to the frustration.

I knew that empathy and I were lost.  Somewhere in the swampland of shame**.

“The purpose is not to walk-in and (ya know) construct a home and live there, it is to put on some galoshes and walk through and find our way around.” ~ Brené Brown (TED-talks, 2012)

And ya, we can’t live in the swamp forever so, I put on my wellies.  Here’s what I discovered when walking-in.

It’s hard to search or read about empathy without hearing the word sympathy.  As much as I could have made a great argument that the two are similar.  They are not.

In fact, when I looked them up in Oxford’s English Dictionary they don’t even mean similar things:

Sympathy:  1.  feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else’s misfortune  

Empathy: the ability to understand and share the feelings of another

There are 3 definitions for sympathy, I included the one in relation to feelings.  Empathy has only one definition.

But for me, sometimes nice, neat definitions don’t mean much when I’m trying to figure out how I’m feeling.  (insert hindsight: the defs. make more sense a bit later for me)

And I got to the chapter on empathy in Brown’s book, I Thought It Was Just Me (but it isn’t). There is so much in this chapter but I’ll highlight the parts that touched me the most in my recovery.

The way we feel when someone sympathises with us is the total opposite to how we feel when someone empathises with us.  I could totally relate when I read Brown’s examples so I will share with you an example of how my dear boyfriend (bf) and a friend reacted to a similar story about when I wrote something I regretted.

When I shared the story with my bf his response was, “Yeah, I’ve written some e-mails at work too that could be classified as nasty-grams.  We’ll all done it.”  When I have shared a story like this with one of my girlfriends, her response was ‘Wow, I would never have done that.’

With my bf’s response I feel like he understood how I was feeling and that I wasn’t alone.  I am not the only one in this world who has written something that he/she has regretted.  My girlfriend’s response made me feel alone.  That I was flawed because I was the only one who would do something like that and that actually led to more shame (not knowing it at the time).

It is hard to see my gf’s response as sympathetic but it is a matter of wording.  She and some other friends have often said ‘I’m sorry for you or That’s a pity that happened’.  Receiving responses like these when sharing a shame experience does not make us feel better and I began to understand why.  It caused separation between us as friends, as human beings.  I belong here (in this box) – writing uncompassionately – and she belongs over there – never have or will do something like that.  Pure disconnection.

But sympathy was still a little fuzzy and then Brown discussed sympathy seeking behaviours.  A trait that is common among narcissists and one I am guilty of as well.  Sometimes a person wants sympathy.  We are actively seeking sympathetic comments and this, in the end, leads to no one feeling better.

When sympathy is the goal no one is healthier for it.  From Brown’s book I learned, the person seeking it ‘really’ isn’t better off and the person who gives it feels used and abused.  When we seek sympathy it is as if we are telling the world that we are the only ones allowed to feel like this (entitlement), we have it the roughest (one-upper) and no one possible can understand us (I’m here and you’re over there).  BUT yet, we still want our uniqueness to be validated with a sympathetic response.

I have often sought sympathy from my emotionally healthy friends with regard to my battle as an ACoN.  I am unique and different from you because I have gone through this trauma during my childhood.  In the end, I never felt better just worse.  And I’m sure that didn’t help build a connection with my friends.

So then it brought me back to empathising in situations where we haven’t walked in each other’s shoes.  For example, my friends who don’t have childhood trauma and are emotionally healthy.  Can they empathise with me?  And what about the fact that my boyfriend’s mother passed away last month while both my parents are still living.  Can I empathise with him?  Or just sympathise?

How do we understand each other when our experiences can be extremely different?  And it was like I felt like I should have known this all along.  We understand each other’s feelings, emotions.  The last time I checked fear, jealously, anger, happiness, joy, grief, betrayal, sadness, depression, shame, hate, love, etc. exist in China, USA, India, UK, Brazil, Germany, etc.  Emotions are a human experience.

Empathy, I learned the hard way, is not about 100% understanding someone’s experience or situation.  It is about tapping into our own feelings and understanding it in another from their perspective (insert note: defs. become clearer).

So, can my emotionally healthy friends fully understand what it is like in this battle as an ACoN – No.  But they can understand how it feels to have someone you love and trust betray you, they can understand how it feels to have someone you love and trust more than anything in the world get angry at you and yell at you and make you feel bad.  They can understand the fear of disappointing someone you love.  They can understand what it is like to feel not enough – unworthy.

And for my dear bf who lost his mother one month ago, I can empathise with him.  I cannot 100% understand the death of a parent but I can share in his feelings of loss and grief.  I have lost my mother a long time ago.  The way I grieve for her is the same feeling he grieves for his mother.  Both our mothers are no longer present in our lives – that connects us.

As the definitions and, more importantly, the distinction between the 2 became more clear, I realised that empathy is only possible if we can tap into our emotions.  Be able to feel all of it – anger, happiness, grief, jealously, etc.  And that’s not easy for me but it is not impossible.

Thank you for allowing me to share here and always.

xx T Reddy

*I appreciate all the comments that I receive and I love how we learn from each other.  Please continue to challenge what I write.  There are times when we communicate with each other that it might trigger shame in each of us.  Shame is different for everyone – our triggers are different.  Shielding someone from shame is not the answer (nor in anyone’s best interests), helping each other out of the swampland to a place of self-worth is our human connection.

**Jungian psychology refers to shame as the swampland of the soul.

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8 thoughts on “Sympathy vs Empathy

  1. Sometimes, my dear you just have to speak YOUR truth regardless of how any other person perceives it. Do not allow others to put judgements on your feelings—your feelings are your feelings and sometimes we do not feel compassion—sometimes we do not feel empathetic simply because we have to deal with out own hurt and pain first……….compassion and sympathy begin with how we treat ourselves….

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    • Sometimes our own hurt and pain do get in the way of being empathetic – agree. I found that to be the case in many of my reactions. Nor is it realistic to expect friends to be empathetic to all the stuff that goes on in our lives because of their own pain and hurt.

      It does begin with how we treat ourselves. Love and be kind to yourself. Reminds me of your V-day post. 🙂
      xx T Reddy

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  2. I recently told a friend of mine a tiny bit about my family. It was hard because his mother died when he was 5 and he has said he really loves the stepmother who raised him. I kind of feel like an ass telling someone who had a loss like that “my mother sucks.”

    I also told him, after I divulged the story, if he pitied me for one second, I would make him sorry.

    His response to me was that he in no way pitied me, but he kind of disliked my mother more (who he’s never met — and never will if I have anything to say about it).

    He’s a really sweet guy, and he surprised me with his answer. Normal people can have empathy for people like us.

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    • That is a warm experience – thank you for sharing it – helps reaffirm the message.

      I have often avoided the discussion or just said I have had problems with my relationship. Looking back on it I think I also communicated my childhood differently – not one of how I was feeling about how she treated me.

      I hope to get this point where I can share more of my childhood experiences with my friends. xxoo

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  3. Hi T Reddy,
    This is a great post. I’m reading Brene Brown for the first time, to really try to get inside my NF’s unwillingness/inability EVER to empathize. With anyone. He’ll use the word sympathize. “I have sympathy for you” he said, coldly, when my dog was dying. Can you imagine?

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  4. The Brown book I’m reading is the one you mention above, “I thought it was about me.” I think that ACoNs are in a way forced into empathizing with our narc parents. They colonize our emotional lives and subjectivity early in life, by delivering the message (in one form or another) that their emotional experience is the only one that has any reality. My parents never empathized with me. My NM would pretend; and for a long time I thought it was real, but it was performative empathy only. Doing it for effect. It explained why our relationship was always better when I was going through something horrible. She almost seemed to take pleasure in her empathizing. Ny Narc father never even pretended to empathize. He’s so self-absorbed he wouldn’t even know how to pretend it. Uggghhhhh.

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    • I’m reading it too at the moment! I would agree that we have learned to empathise with our N parents and take it to the next level – make excuses for them. I misunderstood empathy a lot b/c of this – empathy, I am slowly learning, is not making the excuses for hurtful behaviour but understanding someone’s perspective and feelings.

      I can totally relate to that – no empathy in our household. It is interesting to hear all of our stories. How did your NM pretend? After reading the book I saw that some of my N friends were good at pretending to be empathetic. Isn’t that scary? They are good at imitating healthy behaviours. Ns do take pleasure in others misfortunes – that makes going through something rough even more rough. My mother is a lot like your father. Often, one parent doesn’t pretend b/c they feel that they are only ones allowed to feel a certain way – sympathy. It is so frustrating when you look back on it. Our perception and understanding around empathy and sympathy has been played with.

      How are you finding the book?

      xx T Reddy

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