“I was a Baby. I Cried Once.” Sympathy versus Empathy

One day, and I can’t remember what it was in response to, our lovely daughter tried to comfort her sister. She leaned in close and said very sincerely, “I was a baby. I cried once.” This phrase has become a family favorite.

It is the perfect example of sympathy. Sympathy can be described as seeing someone else’s suffering from our own shoes. Our daughter was doing the best she could to relate to her sister’s crying, and did so from her personal experience of being upset and crying (that one time, ha ha).

When we are “sympathetic” to another person’s feelings or circumstance, we are invariably going through a specific exercise. We look into our invisible recipe box filled with index cards containing snippets of our experiences. We find just the right one, pull it out, and say, yes! I too have experienced this situation and I am therefore sympathetic.

Sympathy can be better than nothing, but it has its limitations. If we’re only able to see things from our own lens, then our imagination is offline. Our ability to relate is stunted. Our ability to comfort someone in their sufferings is limited by whether or not we’ve been in their spot. And, sympathy is often more about “me” than “you”.

Sympathy can be a limelight thief. Can you recall a time that you were sharing a personal struggle with someone, just to have that person dump their past experience and feelings on you? It is quite frankly selfish to attempt to comfort someone by asking them to listen to your story and comfort you. “Sympathetic” people don’t often recognize when they are doing this. Sometimes the sympathy comeback is a clear example of “one-uppership”. My mother-in-law is a great example of this. Nobody, and she means nobody, can out-suffer her sufferings. (Insert eye roll here.) Her stories start with, “oh that’s nothing…”, which is not even sympathy at that point.

Relying on sympathy (relating from my own Rolodex of experiences), can lead to the other person feeling as though they aren’t being heard. “You don’t understand!” If you’re hearing this from your partner after they’ve tried to share their feelings with you, you might be stuck in your own pair of shoes. Someone sharing their feelings wants to know you’ve taken off your shoes and are putting on theirs. They want you to know how these shoes feel, and how they fit.

So what’s the answer?

Empathy. Empathy shines brightly when we close our tattered recipe box, put our experience Rolodex in the drawer, and listen closely. Intently. Intentionally.

Empathy says, “let me take off my shoes and squish around in the puddle you’re in.” It means I’m using my imagination while I’m listening to you share with me. I’m thinking about you, and I’m not thinking about me.

Also, empathy isn’t a bunch of stuff. Empathy isn’t advice. Advice can be given, but that’s not empathy. Empathy doesn’t blame. Blame can be assigned, but again, that’s not empathy. Empathy isn’t in a hurry. Empathy isn’t interested in being right. It isn’t defensive. Empathy doesn’t need to fix you. Empathy doesn’t judge, or decide if you have a right to feel the way you do.

Empathy is wonderful and worth the time to learn. Empathy means I’m not even thinking about my shoes. I’m solely concerned with understanding your shoes, how they fit, and how it feels to wear them. An empathetic person tries their best to understand the other person’s feelings from the other person’s perspective. Empathy says, “I value you, so I’m going to do my best to understand the world from your eyes.”

And empathy takes a step forward, towards the suffering person. (Sympathy takes a step back, towards my own self.)

Empathy leans in. Empathy puts elbows on the table.

Empathy responds. Empathy speaks. It asks questions.

It acknowledges. It seeks to provide comfort and support.

Empathy encourages.

If you need help learning how to empathize, google is your friend. Simple word searches will provide a wealth of example empathy statements and information.

Learn how to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. It’s a journey you’ll not regret taking.

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