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Empathy or Sympathy?

Contributed by Jody McVittie, MD

Last week I wrote about empathy and the practice of seeing the world through “their eyes” without judgment. That is the first part of empathy. The second part is being able to “get” the other person’s feelings and communicate to that person that they are understood. This is hard – and sometimes really uncomfortable. There is a natural urge to “help,” to “fix” or to “feel sorry for” the other person.

Sometimes it is uncomfortable enough that we resort to sympathy instead. What is the difference between empathy and sympathy? The dictionary doesn’t help much but they feel different. Brené Brown (of TED talk fame) helped me understand the distinction in a useful way. She paints a picture. Imagine your friend is having a hard time. You could picture her as being in a deep dark hole. If you were using empathy you might down into the hole with her but with a ladder in your backpack. Words are not as important as your presence. You are not stuck there, but for a while you are with her. You can relate to your friend, but you also can easily climb out of the hole. Sympathy in contrast, she says, is like standing on the edge of the hole, looking down into the deep, saying something like, “I’m so sorry you feel so bad.” It maintains a sense of safe separateness that might easily invite the person “in the hole” to feel more, not less, alone.

Empathy conveys connection; it invites us, according to Brown, “to access our own experiences to connect with the other person.” It is about “being with” instead of “fixing” or “making the other person feel better.”

The challenge for week:
Practice “getting” the other person’s feelings and communicate to that person that they are understood without fixing or feeling sorry. This is particularly hard with our children. One reason is that our mirror neurons are particularly sensitive around those we love. When our child is miserable we feel that pain too. Of course we’d rather not – so our response is to try to fix the situation for our child so that we can feel better.

Tools for connecting without fixing or feeling sorry for (part two of empathy).

Use your body. Take a breath, slow down and be with your child. Your mirror neurons can give you a sense of what he or she is feeling. Don’t do something, just sit there.

“It seems like you feel _____ because_______ and you wish______. (The wish can either be quite realistic or a little bit humorous – trust your gut to see which will fit.)

“I notice that you look like you are feeling ______. Want to talk about it?” (Then zip your lips and listen.)

Reach back to your own experiences – with the intent to connect not to fix. “It seems like you feel_____ because your friend was mean. I can remember how awful it felt when my friend Carol said things behind my back. No fun.” (Then listen.)

Notice: None of these ideas indicate that you are “sorry” that they feel that way, that your child needs to “snap out of it,” or that you are sure he’ll feel better soon. Instead they convey that a variety of emotions are a normal part of the human experience, and they are not alone.

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Photo credit: Josstyk