I love this short video which talks about the difference between sympathy and empathy:
This video made me think a lot about the way we comfort people, about our instinct to want to make things better, and about the way we want to be comforted. The line that sticks out to me the most is “Rarely, if ever, does an empathic response begin with “at least.”
Since watching this video, I’ve tried to slash the phrase “at least” from my vocabulary when I’m trying to be an empathetic ear. It’s made me realize just how much I use it.
I know what the intent is when using this phrase. It’s meant to help reframe a situation for a person so that it doesn’t seem as terrible. Help find the silver lining. Make it hurt less. Tell them it’s not that bad so they don’t feel bad. And in some circumstances, that can be helpful.
But most of the time, it’s just alienating. What I hear is, “your situation isn’t that bad, you probably shouldn’t be this upset.” And that makes the feelings I do have feel invalidated. And that creates distance between me and the person trying to comfort me.
I also love the way the narrator describes what empathy is. How in order to really initiate an empathetic response you have to become vulnerable – vulnerable by finding a place within yourself that allows you to connect to what the other person is experiencing. This place can be uncomfortable. It can be a place you don’t particularly want to be in. But you go there so your friend is not alone.
Sympathy doesn’t go there. Sympathy is pity; it’s distancing and doesn’t require a vulnerable response. Because I’ve been somewhat open among the people around me about our miscarriages and what this experience has been like, I’ve often worried that people are feeling sorry for me. It’s funny how much I really want people to understand how hard and devastating this struggle is, but I don’t want any pity. It’s the empathy I crave.
I’ve learned a lot though my experience with repeat pregnancy loss. About what the soul needs in time of distress; about what I need from other people, and in turn what I should give to others should the situation be reversed. About empathy. About opening up about your private struggles, and what that means. About how to feel difficult feelings rather than run from them, and how to let them pass. About how to summon strength when you need it most. About how to be vulnerable.
And like the narrator says, rarely can a response make some thing better. What we really need to help us through is connection.