Confusion of three sympathy, empathy and compassion

We send sympathy cards. There is a whole selection for life situations where it is appropriate and expected to show sympathy. In the West, we have been culturally programmed for displays of sympathy. We get close to the fire of emotion from another, but shy away just in time as to not get burned. We skate around the truly difficult emotional work of creating a connection with someone who is suffering. Send a card, tick that off the to-do list. This is better than doing or saying nothing. Or is it?

I’m familiar with sympathy. What I had no idea about, until quite recently was empathy. Given the sound of the word and the close spelling, I assumed they were synonyms. Growing up, my childhood experience was easy sailing. There was no opportunity to learn about empathy when I spent the majority of my time hustling for approval through excessive perfectionism. Our family didn’t suffer major tragedies and certainly there were not episodes of major emotions being shown in public.

There were periods when empathy might have been modelled around me. My youngest sister being diagnosed with cancer and the ensuing battle for her life, (which turned out to be victorious for her), but we didn’t know that in the trenches. Years later my Dad would tell me about a very empathetic boss he had during that time. Somehow that story was either not told or I wasn’t listening, (probably the latter).

I remember a great deal of sympathy from well-meaning people who wanted to help. As I reflect back to that time, I don’t recall empathy being shown by anyone other than the therapist we were encouraged to visit. She was good. I thought that was because she was a trained professional and not part of our family and friend circle. All of that was true and she was probably an empath.

Thanks to bunch of learning on my part, I finally understand the difference between sympathy and empathy. While I always had a gut feeling that the sympathy cards were a waste of money, I really believe that now. If there is a situation where someone close to me is suffering, a small show of empathy is a far better response.

Brené Brown is my go to on topics like this. Actually, so much of what I seem to be interested in, her research on shame seems to touch. But, this video on empathy is one I keep coming back to. I am the bear, Christie bear is my childhood nickname. (Not because I was an empath, but because I used to growl as a baby, but I digress).

While empathy seems to be the single most appropriate response to a person who is suffering an emotionally distressing circumstance, compassion might be the better option. According to some professionals, empathy can take a toll on the giver. The act of finding a difficult emotion within ourselves to match with what another person is feeling could be a trigger. Then you have 2 people down in the hole suffering.

One of the definitions of compassion is ‘the humane quality of understanding the suffering of others and wanting to do something about it.’ In this way, you can stand near enough to the pit and understand the full scope of what is going on for the person inside. In addition to a type of empathy, compassion includes the desire to help. However, some people don’t want to be helped, so it is important to seek understanding of what can be done, otherwise insisting on action will make the situation worse.

I struggle with the tension between empathy and compassion. I always want to take action. But if there is not enough understanding of the suffering, I come across as domineering and insensitive. Even though that is not my intent, the end result is what matters. I have had to learn to sit on my hands and gobble down my words. Being empathetic is not my first response so I am always in the work of this practice. It is a pendulum of listening and action. Knowing where we are on the swing is key.

Just when I thought I was getting good at understanding and practicing empathy towards others, I realize there is a level up! Empathy towards myself and the connection to creativity popped onto my radar. I had no idea and now I’m learning a bunch of new things. This week was a deep dive into the empathy extensions.

Hope you enjoyed these DailyFinds and join me to create a life you don’t need a vacation from!

“What you don’t realize is that the world does not need more perfection. It needs more compassion and empathy.”    ― Tessa Dare

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