Why Sympathy Spurs Shame, but Empathy Empowers

Day 28 of 31 Days of Connecting

When Jack was 3 or 4 months old, we went to a family friend’s house for lunch. Not knowing them well, I mostly kept to myself, hiding myself in Jack’s needs. When he finally went down for a nap, I had no choice but to engage in conversation with these strangers (commence awkward introvert small talk). After a little while, the mother asked me how things were going as a new mom. She asked, “Have you been brought to tears?”

Relief filled my heart that perhaps someone might understand what it was like to have a son who had colic, who knew that emotional fatigue overwhelmes a new mama, and that sometimes the only thing to do was to let out a sob or two, so I responded emphatically, “Oh Yes! Just last week, I burst into tears when I was nursing Jack.”

“Really?”

Her surprised and inquisitive look let me know I had it all wrong. I could sense pity coming from her gaze, but I didn’t want pity, I wanted understanding. I wanted to know things could be ok. That all moms shed these tears. Yet in that moment I only received: “Really?”

Ashamed, I looked at my feet, mumbled something about, “Don’t all moms?” and quickly changed the topic or perhaps even left the room.

Writer, speaker, and shame researcher Brené Brown has helped me understand that in that moment what I wanted empathy, but what I received was sympathy. Brown wrote this:

“[Sympathy says], ‘I’m over here and you’re over there. I’m sorry for you. I’m sad for you. AND, while I’m sorry that happened to you, let’s be clear: I’m over here.’ This is not compassion.

“In most cases, when we give sympathy we do not reach across to understand the world as others see it. We look at others from our world and feel sorry or sad for them… When our need for empathy is met with sympathy, it can often send us deeper into shame – we feel even more alone and separated. Empathy is about connection; sympathy is about separation.” (I thought it was just me (but it isn’t), 2007, p 51)

day 28

Whenever I meet a new mom, I find myself longing for her to feel safe with me, to know that though I haven’t been in her exact situation, I get it. Sometimes we are brought to tears. Sometimes those tears don’t stop. Sometimes we want to walk away for awhile. She needs to know that she is not alone, but that someone, somewhere is sitting with her. Loving her. Shedding tears with her.

Then, through that empathy, maybe that mama can be encouraged, empowered to continue on.

<<To hear Brown speak on this topic, and to see some great animation, click here.>>

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What our friends need most from us…

Day 27 of 31 Days of Connecting

I fully intend to listen well. To be a good friend as my friends have been to me. To support them as they have supported me. And yet, I find myself doing it again. Focusing on me.

While she shares her struggles feeding her baby boy, I’m trying to think of ways to fix him as I “fixed” my sons (sort of ignoring the reality that her struggles with reflux, allergies, and other traumas are nothing like mine).

While she shares her problems with her marriages, I find myself comparing her relationship with her husband to my relationship with mine. And instead of listening, or letting her know I was listening, I am now rattling off my own story.

Or, while she is sharing a triumph, a milestone with her kid, I find myself feeling defensive and as if I am failing in some way because my sons didn’t walk until they were 19 months old, didn’t talk until they were 2 years old and are generally clumsy with the gross motor skills.

And the worst yet, is that while she is crying over her struggles, her pain, her need, I find myself uncomfortable with her circumstances and instead of sitting down and mourning with her, I am emotionally distant, offering my well-meaning-yet-missing-the-point-entirely advice, followed by an emotionally empty truism.

The unfortunate thing is that we think that when we’re doing these things we are empathizing. Unfortunately, the reality is, we are not focused on the other person or caring for their needs at all, but are thinking of our own. We are uncomfortable in their pain and while we think we are trying to make them feel better, we are actually trying to make ourselves feel better.

What our friends need from us is not to hear how our circumstances were worse or better. They often don’t even want advice – (a safe rule is don’t give it unless asked). What our friends need most is for us to get down with them, offer a shoulder to cry on, and to be with them.

What our friends need most from us is us.

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And that is what makes all of the difference. When we do this for one another, suddenly we are not so alone. Suddenly, our circumstances seem manageable. Suddenly, we are validated in our needs, our feelings, our very selves.

The next time I am with a friend, I will try again. I will shut my mouth and let her talk. I will put myself in her shoes and allow myself to feel her pain. I won’t try to make myself feel better by trying to fix her situation, or minimizing it, or allowing myself to feel like a failure. I will just be with her.

As she has been there for me.

Day 27

 

31 days of connecting