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  • Sara Mann

Sympathy -vs- Empathy

I know there are a lot of people out there that read my blog who are desperately trying to be a support to someone who is either suffering from an eating disorder or trying to recover from one. These people constantly feel like they are missing the mark. They try to comfort their loved one, but somehow it backfires and instead of helping they end up hurting or they wind up in an argument. On the other side of the coin, there is the person suffering and battling through recovery. They never feel heard. They feel like no one understands or even that most people think what they are going through is crazy and they should just get over it and eat a burger.

This has happened SO many times in my own recovery. I have a very bad day where I don’t think I can keep going. Something triggered me and I all of a sudden feel overwhelmed, emotional, hopeless and like quitting recovery. I’ll reach out to someone and share my pain and wind up feeling dismissed, minimized, defensive of my emotion and sometimes even upset with the person I reached out to because of their lack of “genuine” care.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, you might be the person that someone has come to in their sadness or hardship, and instead of helping, you have found yourself in a position where you don’t know what to say, everything is coming out wrong and even though you are trying your best to show them you care, it falls flat and now things seem off.

For example….

I’ll have a day where my situation has just gotten to me. I have to go out to a party. Nothing looks or feels good. I hate my body. I hate the recovery process. I don’t want to eat and before I know it, I’m sitting in the bathroom crying, overwhelmed and wanting to just stay home. My husband will knock on the door and ask what’s wrong.(don’t worry, he gave me the O.K. to use him as an example!) Through tears I unload how I’m feeling and share my depths of despair. I’ll then look at him, and instead of the comforting, deep feeling, response I desire, I receive something like….“Well, I don’t see you like that,” or “This is hard, but lets try and go have fun.” Another one might be, “I hear what you are saying but no one else thinks that,” or “That’s not what the doctors say,” or even “Ya, that sucks, (awkward silence, staring at the nearest door for escape)”. I then feel even worse, or like I have to defend my feelings or argue why they are valid. I’ll say things like, “Your not helping!!” or “I don’t care what other people think, this is how I feel!” He feels defeated because he clearly did something wrong since I’m now even more upset, and then I’m upset because I didn’t feel like he TRULY cared and instead dismissed how I felt. Now don’t get me wrong, he is just trying to help. His intentions are good, and if I’m not in an overwhelmingly emotional state I can see this, but in the moment it misses the mark.

Here is where I think things go wrong. Most of us, are looking for empathy, NOT sympathy. We don’t want you to fix it, or explain it away, or remove it. We want you to let us know you FEEL our pain. You care about our emotion and that you can see it from OUR point of view. You don’t judge how we feel, you simply allow us to feel the way we do. Some people get caught up in the idea that if it wouldn’t bother them, it shouldn’t bother someone else. NO! Everyone has their own perspective on things and when we reach out to vulnerably share that perspective, the last thing we want is someone letting us know our perspective is silly, or unfounded. What we NEED is to be validated and receive empathy, not invalidated and given sympathy.

Here is an AWESOME (3 minute) video by Brene Brown about empathy. Not only is it funny, it really shows the difference between being sympathetic verses empathetic.

Isn’t that video great!?!?

I’m sure we can all relate to the deep desire to punch someone in the face when they say, “at least…..” to us after we just shared our deepest hurts or feelings with them.

So what does this look like and how does this really play out? Brene hits the nail on the head! Honestly, it’s just about connecting emotionally with someone. It’s about letting them feel and trying our best to feel along with them. It’s not about fixing it or finding the silver lining. It’s not about wanting them to not feel the pain. It's not about YOU or your perspective. It's about their perspective. It’s about sitting in the pain with them and finding that place in your own mind and emotions that relates.

I can speak from experience, that when someone offers empathy, I actually find it easier to navigate through my emotions and I almost find peace and the ability to calm down faster when I am offered that empathetic connection. We are not meant to go through lives biggest hurdles and hurts alone. We are wired to reach out to one another for support and help. MOST people know what deep pain feels like. It's simply about tapping into that pain and vulnerably offering it up to one another. It's saying, "Girl....I FEEL YOU. This type of pain is excruciating," and simply leaving it at that.

A therapist once said that if you are struggling to give someone empathy, take a look inside and see what it is that is holding you back. Are you scared of your own emotions? Do you not want the other person to be sad so you desperately want to make them happy again? Do you feel responsible for the pain someone is sharing and you don't want to acknowledge it? Maybe it is simply really hard to put yourself in that vulnerable position of showing that you too have had hurt and can share that hurt. It might just be that we have no idea how someone is feeling! If we are being honest, sometimes we just don't want to have to take the time to empathize. It's easier to simply acknowledge the situation sucks and move along with our errands. I think we all want to act like we have it all together and want to keep our pains and tears buried far away from the surface. Empathy, however, forces us to tap into those feelings and use them to connect with each other on a deep level.

Empathy is powerful. It connects us. It builds trust and relationship. It bring a "knowing" between people. The actual definition of empathy is, "the ability to understand and share the feelings of another." It's literally takes people out of isolation and into a world of sharing with another person. It's like a release of going through something heavy alone and all of a sudden sharing it with someone else. No longer do we carry the weight of the burden alone. There are even scientific studies proving how empathy has positive effects on our hearts, bodies and mental health. This is big stuff right here! Don't believe me? Watch this Tedx Talk by Helen Riess about the power of empathy!

In the video above Helen says, "Every human being has a longing to be seen, understood and appreciated." That is some truth right there. The next time you find yourself in a situation where someone is sharing something hard, try empathy. Try to see them, understand them and appreciate what they are going through. Reach deep into yourself and work to see the situation from their point of view. Ask questions about how they are feeling and try to relate to it in your own way. Don't judge. Don't fix. Don't dismiss. Empathize!


- Sara -

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