There is definitely a difference between empathy and sympathy. One can be really helpful whilst the other can leave us feeling like we haven't been heard, and even worse.
Whilst it is an expression of concern for the other person, it is often followed by words that imply things could be worse, as though trying to console them.
‘ How awful that the house fire wrecked your kitchen – but it could have been worse. At least it didn’t spread to the rest of the house.’
‘ I’m so sorry you had a miscarriage, but at least you can try again’
‘ I’m sorry your son didn’t get into uni, but thank goodness your daughter is doing well. ‘
Or even worse, when someone tops your misfortune,
‘How awful to have broken your ankle, at least it's not as bad as when I broke my leg and I had to be in plaster for months’.
When you are going through a really bad time, and someone makes those well-meaning comments. It feels like the other person isn’t really bothered about you, and they certainly haven’t understood your pain, whether emotional or physical.
This goes so much deeper, and it’s actually the ability to recognize the suffering of another person from their point of view and to openly share their emotions, including painful distress, rather than trying to mollify or fix them. It does mean you have to be there by their side and experience to some degree their pain.
One of the reasons I guess people don’t go there, as it does mean you have to experience some level of discomfort, as well as witnessing theirs.
When I really appreciated a friend’s empathy towards me.
'I had just been diagnosed with breast cancer. Many people around me tried to be there, trying to placate and reassure me, with words like ‘ You’ll be ok, you’re strong’ ‘treatment has improved so much now - ‘You’ll be fine’
I knew they were trying to be kind, but in my head, all I could think was ‘what do they know?’
One close friend’s response when I told her was ‘ that’s shit’. Nothing more. Those words meant more to me than any others words spoken. She just sat with me and allowed me to cry, in fact, I think she cried with me. I knew she was there for me. That she was prepared to be by my side, however difficult it was for her.
Those two words expressed so much. She really felt for me, she understood how scary it was, and she didn’t know the answers. Any more than the medical team did at that point. Not only did I take real comfort from her, but I felt I could trust what she said because she wasn’t going to BS me. '
A deeper level of empathy is compassion, demonstrating an actual desire to help the suffering person. Of course, it's important not to get too emotionally affected by the other person’s suffering, not only because you won’t be any help to them, but you are in danger of becoming completely emotionally drained.
Trying to fix the problem
When we see someone struggling or in distress, it feels really uncomfortable, and no one wants to see someone they love in pain. There are times when we can do something to fix the problem, but there are times when we can’t, as in the case of my breast cancer. It took a whole team of medical people several months to rid my body of the cancer.
But because you don’t like seeing your loved ones suffering, or struggling, you may be tempted to try to do what you think will resolve it. Instead of asking the other person what they need. They may say they don’t know, and that’s ok. Let them know you are there for them and reassure them that when they do know you are there for them. Just being by their side may well be enough at that time.
How to Empathise.
Imagine you are in that situation, without coming up with a solution, Because the solution that worked for you may not work for them. Get in touch with your emotions around that situation. When you can do that, you are most likely to have some insight into their pain and be of the most help to them too. Trust me, it's really hard to do, but is likely to be most appreciated.
Word of warning. We each need to be aware of how much we give of ourselves because we can become overloaded, and get empathy fatigue. So, whilst being there for another person, just be aware of the effect it may haeon you.
#102 - Kirstine Weaver - Living with ADHD
Growing up in the 80s ADHD was not widely understood; it was attributed to bad parenting and to boys who caused chaos in the classroom. The hyperactivity of the inattentive AD(H)D person is found in the mind not the body. Kirstine Weaver knew they were different but didn't know why, and spent a lot of time staring out of the windows at school. School reports said 'could do better if only they focused more' but nothing further was done.
Their hope is that by sharing their story, they give others who may be struggling in a similar way.
Here is the link to listen to the podcast and learn more about Kirstine and her Facebook page - NeuroQuirky - https://love-listen-talk-repeat.libsyn.com/
If you would like to have a chat and find out how I can help you, here the link to arrange a chat - http://bit.ly/2GmUBPo