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.”


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.>>


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

Temporary Forever, by Shawna Ervin

Day 25 of 31 Days of Connecting

My dear friend Shawna wrote this short story, Temporary Forever, and it was published in Sliver Stone Magazine.  I am so proud of her. It is a story about a mom who remembers her life back in foster care, the fear, the heartache, and the hope that is in that system.

I know it is fiction, and yet through it I have learned a piece of who she is. I would love to see you connect. To hear her words, learn her heart through this story. 

Shawna is working hard on writing a memoir about adopting her children. You can also find her on her blog, Of Prepositions Prayer & Playdough. 

Here are the first words…


It was Tuesday. That meant preschool for my four-year-old son, and once again I was making a lunch at the last minute, running late.

“Five minutes, kids,” I shouted from the kitchen. “Five minutes and we’re going to take Nathan to school. Are your shoes on? Nathan, did you pick something for show and tell? Today is the letter D. Do you remember your choices? Your stuffed dog or the bathtub duck,” I said, hitting the letter D extra heavy on duck and dog.

I faced back to the counter and quickly swabbed the bread with mayonnaise—just a little, like he liked. I slapped the deli turkey on the bread, added the extra thin, sharp cheddar cheese, stuffed the sandwich in a plastic baggie, zipped it shut, and let it fall gently into the green and blue dinosaur lunch box. Our baby, who was almost two, toddled into the kitchen and dropped her bottle near my feet.

“Hi, Madison,” I said. “Almost time to go.”

To the fridge and back. Unsweetened applesauce. Baby carrots. Packed in small plastic containers, the blue lids fitting with a humph.

To the freezer for an ice pack. I dropped it in, realized it may squish the sandwich, and figured my son wouldn’t notice or care all that much. Spoon. Fork. Napkin.


I was fourteen the first time I sliced a tomato and onion, just two of many experiences I hadn’t had before entering foster care. I held the knife tentatively and pushed on the tomato. It sunk a little and formed a darker spot the size of my fingertip. I was afraid of the sharpness of the knife, the threat it held against this fragile tomato, anything as fragile as I felt after a week of being in a new place. I didn’t want to hurt it, myself, anything. The bruises were still tender on my arms, back, around my neck…

<You can find the rest here.>


Know Thyself: it will change the way you connect with others

Day 24 of 31 Days of Connecting

31 days big

Three years ago I was pregnant, working around 15 hours a week, moving us into our house, taking care of our two year old, trying to potty train said two year old, and I could not understand why I was so.very.tired.

I looked around at other moms I knew. Moms who homeschooled 4 children. Moms who worked away from home full time. Moms who worked from home full time. Moms who had multiples. Moms who ran marathons. Moms who did as much or more than me and were bursting with energy. And I saw myself as falling short, so I continued to strive after them.

But my friends, my husband, my counselor and mentor – they all told me to slow down.

The distance between what I wanted to be able to do and what I was able to do could not have been greater. I didn’t listen to them. But I did go on a spiritual retreat for a weekend and God used these verses to change my life:

Pay careful attention to your own work, for then you will get the satisfaction of a job well done, and you won’t need to compare yourself to anyone else.  For we are each responsible for our own conduct. (Galatians 6:4-5)

Now, I have never done a complete exegesis of these verses, but what I heard that day was Stop trying to be like everyone else. You are responsible for your work alone, not what others want from you, not what you expect from you, but what I created you to do. You are trying to do too much. Stop and rest.

Susan Cain wrote in her book Quiet that to “introverts, who have spent so much of their lives conforming to extroverted norms … it feels perfectly normal to ignore their own preferences.”

Having lived in a fast paced world of high ambitions and great expectations, I was not used to caring for my own needs, claiming my preferences, or even voicing my opinions that contradicted others. Those closest to me were telling me to embrace myself by stopping. Could I accept who I was?

Acceptance of myself took understanding myself. I relearned my Kersey temperament type (INFJ). I reread The Highly Sensitive Person. I finally purchased Quiet. And I have discovered that by knowing who I am, I am not only able to stop, but I am able to start so much more.

I believe the same can be true for you, too. By knowing yourself you can:

  1. Confidently assert what it is you need in order to thrive. This is not a selfish thing. It is perhaps the most important thing you can do to become a flourishing employee, parent, partner, and friend. For me this has meant I needed to step back from many one-on-one meetings each week (which drained me) so that I could pour out my energy into teaching classes, leading moms group, and writing.
  2. Discover what fills you and choose to do those things. Are you an introvert? Then going to that Halloween party next week after a stressful week will only make your stress worse. Are you an extrovert? Then you need to find that party and crash it if you weren’t invited. As you know yourself more, you will feel more comfortable saying “no” to the things that drain you and “yes” to those things where you can not only find peace again, but are able to pass it on to others.
  3. Have a better sense of your giftings God gave you to serve others. I am able to do administrative work, but if you stick me in front of a computer entering data for an hour I will feel dead inside after an hour. Yet, some of my dearest friends can get 5x as much administrative work done in the that same hour. And they could pick up more! Do you thrive when teaching? Then find a place to do it and start trying. Are you teaching children’s Sunday School, but are more energized when vacuuming up the crumbs in the room at the end of the hour? Then volunteer to clean! Not all people are supposed to do all things.
  4. You can communicate more with your partner why you are unhappy. And this may or may not be about them. My husband needs to tell me to stop talking to him when he’s tired, because he needs his time alone. And because I know his needs, I know it is not an affront against me, but rather a way to care for him at the time. When he is rested, he’ll be able to be with me. If I hang around… well, suddenly I am the problem.
  5. You can help others discover themselves. When we can recognize that we are unique individuals created by God, we can stop expecting other people to conform to our image for them and can see the good God placed in them in the first place. We can release them from their preconceived notions of what they should be like in order to embrace what they are like. Have a messy friend? Unveil their creative energy. Does your son prefer reading to football? Enroll him in a creative writing class to create his own work.

My life has dramatically shifted over the course of the past 3 years. Beginning in September, I have been pursuing writing 10 hours a week. (It’s not all here on this blog) I had to say no to mentoring a few women at church, but I am regularly reaching over 200 on this blog. After staff meetings, I don’t plan a thing for the rest of the day because I know I need that time to process through every word that was said over the course of those two hours – yes, it’s as tiring as it sounds. I read. A lot. I take days off when I need them (hence no Day 23 post, because I just couldn’t).

And, because I’m taking care of myself, I feel like I am myself.

You have searched me, Lord,
    and you know me.

(Psalm 139:1)

Want to learn more about yourself? And more than just which Jane Austen character you are or which Beatles song is your theme song? Take a legitimate personality test, here

Never heard of Susan Cain? Watch her Ted Talk. It’s pretty great.

Why I am Grateful for My Friends

Day 22 of 31 Days of Connecting 

Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful.  And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching. Hebrews 10:23-25

Day 22

I hold on tight to my friendships. It’s because I don’t have many of them. And that’s not because people don’t like me (as I once believed), but because I thrive with a few close friends.

My closest, dearest friends are those who encourage me towards love. The ones who teach me how to love, who love me, and reveal to me that I am lovable. They let me know when I am seeing myself poorly. They let me know when I am being overly harsh with a leader, my husband, or my kids. They listen.

I learn to love from them because they love well.

They don’t assume my circumstances are the same as theirs, but let me talk.

They let me feel my feelings, validating each and every one. But they point out the error in my beliefs when they are present. Because though my feelings are valid, the beliefs driving them often could stand for correction.

My friends don’t assume that their way is my way. They don’t tell me how to parent my kids, but encourage me as I figure out how it will work best for me on my own. They know I am not the same as them. They know my kids are not the same as theirs.

My friends have hurt my feelings. My true friends have let me tell them that and have apologized. And I am safe with them to confess my faults in the same way.

My friends let me cry. They don’t try to make me stop. They don’t tell me everything is okay when it isn’t. They let me feel. They pray for me. They stand by me.

My friends see me not for who I am, but for who God created me to be. They don’t give up on me, but allow me to stumble blindly as I reach out for the hope that was promised in Christ.

Yes, my friends love well.

To those who have been this for me, thank you for being my friend.

And though we may not live in the same city, state or even country, I hope to never stop meeting with you.

How God Cared for Me

Day 20 of 31 Days of Connecting

The other day, in a fit of exhaustion, I posted a link to my sermon on trusting God. I promised that part of my story (which starts here) is part of the sermon… and it is.

But since I know most people do not have 30+minutes to listen to a sermon, I will try to tell the next part of my story here. Now. For those of you who did listen, thank you! What an honor.

Now where was I…?

Oh yes, God taught me that He wanted a deeper relationship with me.

About a month after that conversation with God in my car, I was still grieving. I was still uncovering the hurt I had buried, the distrust I felt, and the fear I had. I was starting to see other misunderstandings of God, like:

I believed God was grading me.

I believed God expected me to be perfect.

I believed God was punishing us financially because of something I must have done.

Yeah… that last one sucked. It was incredibly painful. After all, I had given up everything to follow his call, Tim had taken a huge risk in starting his own business, and there we were, barely making ends meet. But the alternative to my understanding was that God wasn’t providing for us financially because He wanted us to suffer for Him. Or He just wouldn’t provide because He doesn’t.

All bad ideas. All gross misunderstandings of the God who gave himself for us.

But I didn’t see that then. I just saw our grocery lists, our small pay checks, and our unpaid bills.

In April I went to a conference for pastors in our denomination and through the keynote speaker, God broke through the lies I embraced.

Together we read 1 Peter 3:7 which states Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you. I know this verse by heart. I’ve sung it at summer camp, memorized it for youth group and heard it preached before.

But the preacher restated it: The God of the Universe has unlimited resources at his disposal, will you let him care for you?

Day 18

I felt my heart pounding in my chest as God called out to me. I realized how abandoned I felt by Him. How I thought He left us, financially. And the question rang out, “Will you let him care for you?” Followed by the fear in my heart: Would He care for me?

I went to my host home that evening praying and over the next several days I felt Love prompting me to trust Him. To ask Him for what I felt we needed and the promise that He would provide. I told my husband what God was prodding me to do and He said, “Good. Do it.”

How much do you need?

I thought… I hesitated…



Really? Ok?! … $7,000?

Don’t push it.

I have never felt so sure in my life that God would answer my request. $5,000 sounded like a ton of money. I saw us catching up on our electrical and hospital bills. I saw the credit card being partially paid off. I saw myself breathing easily.

The next month came and went. I wasn’t sure how we did, financially. It felt good, but I didn’t take the time to check. I was too nervous! But then my husband texted me.

In May of 2013, our income added up to $5,000.84.

I couldn’t believe it. Numb with distrust, I thought surely that was a coincidence. But the more I considered the amount – the exactness of it – the almost to the penny answer to the prayer I had prayed – the more I was convinced it was God showing me He provides.

I can scrape and worry and count and stress and do all I can do to try to control things, but in the end He cares for me.

He cares for me.

We have not continued to receive $5,000.84 each month. In fact, many months we have been back at the bottom of the barrel, again being creative to get by. But you know what? I’m not afraid any more. God cares for me. He provides for me. He loves me.

I know that now.

I struggle trusting God with money, what do you struggle with entrusting to God? A relationship? Children? Career? An Illness? The God of the Universe desires to care for YOU. Will you let Him?

I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.  I can do all this through him who gives me strength. (Philippians 4:12-13)

31 days of connecting

The God of the Universe cares for you… Will you let Him?

Day 18 of 31 Days of Connecting

A year and a half ago, I had been working through tons of anger with God for calling us away from our families and our financial struggles were just adding insult to injury. Does God care? was a huge question in my life. And then a preacher stated this:

Day 18

The God of the Universe who has unlimited resources at his disposal cares about you. Will you let Him?

I felt God telling me: Trust me.

So, I did.

You can hear the full story here, within a sermon I preached at Scum of the Earth Church on January 12, 2014. You will need Quicktime player to hear this sermon – or you can search for it in iTunes podcasts under “Scum Sermons.”

Thanks for listening.

Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you. 

1 Peter 5:7 NIV