Empathy vs. Sympathy

photo-1451471016731-e963a8588be8Last week I came across this great short video that beautifully illustrates the difference between empathy and sympathy. It’s narrated by Brené Brown, a well-known researcher, speaker, and author who studies human connection.

I consider myself a pretty empathetic person, and always try to connect with the perspective of how someone’s feeling when they’re sharing something difficult with me, but this rang a few bells! It grates on my nerves when someone immediately tries to ‘silver line’ an issue I’m sharing, but I’m pretty sure I’ve used the words “at least” (as shown in the video) more than once when trying to help.

On the one hand, it makes sense, right? Of course we want to make someone feel better when things are rough, to help them focus on brighter thoughts than the ones they’re currently having. But I think there’s more to it than that. Our culture is so focused on happiness as being the ultimate state of being, that when someone’s feeling a different way — frustrated, angry, confused, or sad, say — we have a hard time simply being in that place, and letting them be in it. Let’s get back to happy, we think. Let’s feel better. But all those other emotions are essential to being human, to living wholly. (Without them, we’d be robots, not people.) And I think it can be kind of dismissive to jump to a positive spin when someone’s sharing from a dark place. It suggests that how they’re feeling isn’t valid, that how they ‘should’ try to feel is something entirely different from how they’re actually feeling. I think that’s part of the disconnect Brown is talking about.

It’s okay to not have answers or solutions or even a silver lining. It’s okay to admit that sometimes, things just suck, there’s no immediate way out of it sucking, and the fact that it sucks is neither the end of the world nor something to run from. It’s okay to just say, “This sucks. I’m sorry. I’m here with you.”

I love how the use of animation brings this concept to light in such a powerful way.

Here’s another one, on blame:

Have you read any of Brené Brown’s work? I haven’t yet, but from what I’ve read about her, she dives into the areas of being vulnerable, being brave, the power of emotion — you know, all the light stuff. :) Her newest book, Rising Strong, is a New York Times bestseller and Amazon Best Book of August 2015.

The Amazon editorial review says this:Rising Strong isn’t some feel-good-get-over-it regimen; it’s more investigative reporting on the common denominators of people who whole-heartedly get back up and go another round after getting their asses handed to them in big and small ways.”

More important than an Amazon review, my friend Kate highly recommends it, saying it’s illuminating, profound, and powerful. So, I’ve officially added it to my 2016 book list (which is starting to get ambitiously and perhaps unrealistically long).

I’m so curious what you guys think about the video and the idea of empathy vs. sympathy. What’s your approach for helping someone in a rough patch? What do you find helpful from others when you’re having a tough time? Do you or have you felt others go the ‘silver lining’ route? If you’d like, please share in the comments…I have a feeling there’s a lot of different perspectives floating around out there, and I’d love to hear them!

Happy Thursday, everyone.

xx ~C.

p.s. Brené Brown’s TED talk, The Power of Vulnerability, is one of the most-watched TED talk of all time.

(photo by Annie Spratt)
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3 responses

  1. I love, love, LOVE this video. Definitely gonna share it wth my company! I’ve followed Brene Brown’s work for a few years now, and I’ve made an effort to respond to friends with phrases like, wow, that’s hard, or I can see that you’re really hurting. Sometimes I ask if they want me to offer something that might spark a perspective shift or they’d rather I just be with them. It’s worked pretty well, but I’m not always consistent! xxo

  2. I am definitely a fan of Brown, and I love her take on this. I think that just by being present with someone in crisis/depression/sadness is the best thing you can give; not some one-dimensional response that does not validate the current feelings of your friend. Yes, we want to make our friends feel better, but sometimes (a lot of the times) that’s not what they need, but instead perhaps just someone to sit with them and simply to agree, “yes, this does suck, yes, you should be angry…”

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