- Definition: Being able to hear what the other person is telling you, without judgment or giving the other person advice or trying to show off your own problems or telling them their problems are stupid or pretending to listen but secretly finding joy in playing with your phone or giving them *eugh* sympathy instead.
“I think we all have empathy. We may not have enough courage to display it.”
– Maya Angelou –
Years ago, right after my mother got diagnosed with breast cancer, I told a friend how scared I was to lose my mother. My friend’s response was: “Oh come on, my parents have several women living in their street who have had breast cancer. And they all survived.”
I’ve never told her anything significant again, but it took me a long time to figure out why exactly; this “friend” (we’ve fallen apart) didn’t give me what I needed when I told her I was afraid. Instead of listening to my feelings and giving me empathy, she went along and tried to soothe me. In her own, wicked and – may I add – lousy way she gave me sympathy.
Last night I got into a fight with my mother (who luckily survived breast cancer. Just like those three women living in the street of my ex-friend’s parents). I got upset over something and felt incredibly sad. I came to her for comfort, but I got tricked out of receiving empathy again. Instead, she got cross with me for “wasting her time” while she should be cooking.
My mother is not the queen of empathy, let me tell you!
So here I am, thinking it’s time to settle this thing once and for all. First of all: empathy is more difficult than most people think. It goes beyond trying to imagine what the other person is going through, because if you go down that road odds are you will end up giving them unwanted advice or telling them something similar YOU’VE experienced that was , of course, much worse than their story. From there it’s an easy step to tell them “it’s going to be okay,” because if you made it through, so can they. That’s not empathy, that’s sympathy, and it’s not what someone wants to hear.
Basically, all they want is to let their emotions out. Empathy is listening to what the other person is saying, and making sure they feel comfortable enough to express their feelings to you. I found a super video that perfectly clears out the difference between empathy and sympathy:
Don’t let yourself get tricked into giving sympathy. It’s considered a good thing to be sympathetic, but sometimes it really isn’t. Sometimes all we need is someone who gives us a hug and listens to us rant. Who confirms our emotions and gives us the space and courage to let these out.
Be brave. Be empathic.
“Maybe love is what I need, but not your sympathy.”
– Mika –
When was the last time you needed empathy but didn’t get it?