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Empathy Vs Sympathy

When you’re feeling especially shitty, it’s really easy to seek sympathy instead of empathy. Which is fairly understandable.

But what’s the difference between empathy and sympathy? And why does it matter?

The dictionary has two distinctly different definitions of these emotional descriptors.

They both sound pretty admirable right? Well, although taking the time to consider another person’s feelings is always encouraged, favoring sympathy over empathy when you’re the one experiencing trauma, suffering, or discomfort may actually prevent you from receiving the comfort and connection you desire from the people around you.

But how can seeking sympathy affect you negatively?

Accredited author and researcher, Brenè Brown, recently dove deeper into the idea of empathy vs sympathy in a recent podcast episode. She explained, “Empathy is ‘I feel with you. While I may not have had that experience, I can connect with that emotion you’re feeling based on that experience. While I may not know what it’s like to get fired, I know grief and rage and fear. I know the emotions that underpin that experience and that’s how I’m connecting to you around this.

Brenè goes on further to explain that when she rejects empathy in the hopes of receiving sympathy, her response can sound more like, “Nothing ever falls the way I want it to. You don’t get it. No one knows how I feel.’ …Now I don’t want empathy and connection, I want sympathy and validation that everybody has it better than me and no one gets it.”

“What we found in the research was that sympathy seeking is very related to shame. When we’re in shame, what do we feel? Alone. So when we’re sympathy seeking, what do we feel? Like it’s just me. I thought it was just me.”

At this point, I’m sure you can relate. Just like I can relate through the many times I’ve felt like all I wanted was someone that would just get me and validate everything I was going though and feeling. Wanting someone to validate my responses to the situation. And sometimes, yes, that is all you need, right?

But seeking sympathy takes the healthy desire for connection and understanding and twists it when you reject the idea that anyone could understand you.

You reject their attempts at empathy because they didn’t go through the same situation or they don’t completely agree with your actions and behavior.

In regards to expressing empathy and compassion, we frequently make the mistake of focusing on the details of our own trauma or the unique details related to the experiences of others instead of recognizing that although we don’t have the exact same experiences, we do know what pain feels like. What fear feels like. Disappointment. Embarrassment. Joy. Peace.

I’ve found this strategy to be especially helpful for myself when I frequently struggle to experience feelings of empathy and compassion due to what I attribute as self-absorption due to anxiety and depression and difficultly processing as a Highly Sensitive Person.

So, I encourage you to take a moment and be mindful of what type of response you’re seeking from the people around you. And in your quest to be more empathetic and compassionate, try not to focus on how you can relate to the exact experiences of others, try relating to the feelings those experiences evoked for others.

This blog post was inspired by the words of Brenè Brown through her podcast, Unlocking Us. Discover more about Brenè’s research into shame and vulnerability with one of my favorite books that she’s written.

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