Empathy & Sympathy

December 15, 2013

I came across this video on Empathy and Sympathy which clearly explains the difference between the two. Although I think it unfairly depicted how sympathy could come off seemingly cold. It also took only one aspect of how we could use empathy.

Please take a moment to watch it.

Don’t get me wrong, it always feels better for the person who is hurting to have someone who is empathetic than someone who is sympathetic. I get it; “misery loves company”. There are benefits and pitfalls to both.

Let’s look at Sympathy first. 

The sympathetic elk, deer, antelope (I have no idea what that thing is) is depicted as completely cold and distancing. They are presented as being so disassociated with the others. She can see their struggle and then say “Yea that does suck.” Then offer no reflection or connection towards it. This often leads the suffering party into feeling many different things: ashamed, embarrassed, lonely, frustrated, etc.  on top of what they are already experiencing. Of course, this doesn’t bother the elk as much because they don’t pick up on that emotion.  Energy wise: It is like a solid block in the energy, where nothing imprints.

If you are finding that you avoid talking to people who are feeling a certain way, think about why. If you perchance do engage but find yourself wanting to get out of the conversation, ask yourself why? A lot of times you are feeling that sympathetic barrier breaking. It’s scary because you do end up opening yourself to emotions you’d rather not experience.  It gets too close. Think about why you may be avoiding this experience. Try on a little empathy to explore if it is opening something you are avoiding yourself.

Sympathy doesn’t have to look cold and distancing. Sometimes there is absolutely nothing you can do and sometimes you are not close enough to offer empathy. It is also important that those in that space recognize that those who offer sympathy may only be able to do so. When my dad died no one really knew what to say. I was jilted at all the “I feel sorry for your loss.” It was so empty to me. But at the same time, what could they do? These people didn’t know me. They weren’t near me. They offered what they could and it was their sympathy. It was up to me to recognize that and accept it, regardless of how it felt to me because they did what they could in their capacity. I would be no different in the same situation, I couldn’t be.

To give credit to the elk?, she does end up offering a silver lining. It is SO unfortunate the way the translated the silver lining because they can be very useful if used properly. Silver linings can offer a positive perspective on a negative situation. It’s really a matter of what you say, how you say it, and when you use them. Both sympathy and empathy can utilize silver linings to help others through a seemingly bleak situation where NOTHING is good. Sometimes people who are in that space can’t see anything but the darkness. They become blind. The silver lining is a relatable light to their situation that makes it easier to consider in their temporary limited scope.

Example: You’ve just lost your job. Your bills are due and you have a family who depends on you alone. You’re stressed, worried and what do you do? If someone said, “Oh don’t worry, it will all work out.” That is completely useless. That is so far from silver lining it might as well be in another galaxy. Now if you were to say, “Well, company xyz is hiring and looking for someone with your skills.” Or “Your personal business is starting to take off, now you can focus on it completely.” Those are more closely related and offer a lit path to the person who is feeling in the dark.

The important part about silver linings, if you’re going to offer them be willing to go with them along that path.

Let’s look at the Empathy.

The bear clearly puts himself right with his friend the fox. Experience the same emotions and space as one another. Then after sharing for sometime they both end up feeling much better. They don’t actually show how it works; how do you get from that space to a happier space? Clearly talking with another person who can feel as miserable as you isn’t the only thing in the equation. Not to discount that having someone in that space with you is great, what you need is someone who can then show you the way out.

Those who are highly emphatic who may not be aware of it yet find they end up suffering a great deal when they actually engage into empathy. The feelings that they are trying to relate with end up becoming their own so much so they feel as if it is actually happening to them and then they start responding as such. Without that recognition that can create a lot of issue with explainable mood swings and confusion.

I know this used to happen to me a lot in junior high. It is not normally JUST the feelings we usually address with others; sadness, loneliness, grief. It also included feelings like jealousy, anger, arrogance, fear, and happiness. Really any emotion or mix of emotions. Talk about emotional cocktails. Their emotional programs end up rubbing off onto empathetic people without them even recognizing it. Energy wise; you are taking their energy onto your own with or without you knowing.

In this case it would be important to practice sympathy if only to provide a balance to the empathy. It is possible to be sympathetic while still being empathetic. How does that work?

Your friend is hurting and she is stuck. You really can’t do anything. You’ve never explored that space before. So explore it, talk about it. Ask questions and engage. You don’t have to BE in it to help in some way. Recognizing that pain is important. Then you go from there. Sometimes they need to be in that pain for a while. To full experience it before they can let it go. Recognize that. Sometimes that pain needs to be there for healing. Recognize that. You don’t have to suffer with them but be there. Energy wise: you take on their energy and then release it so you can be in a better position to help.  Use it as a reference.

You will be able to experience that emotion, relate and show that relation. Then you can have the wherewithal to show the way out with the understanding that it can take time. That there are set backs. That all reactions are normal. That it is in order. We who are leading, must show some patience and understanding. We who are leading must put ourselves in and out of that space over and over to make sure we are going the right way for them, not for us, but for those we are leading.

People are naturally emphatic.We are given circumstances in our life that cause us shut down and put up that barrier. Some of just can’t turn it off. Either way is okay as long as we recognize it, see it for what it is and then make a conscious decisions if it is the way we want it to be. If it’s not, change it. Yes, it is just that easy, if you want it to be.