There is a difference between empathy and sympathy. Empathy is when you understand and feel another’s feelings for yourself, while sympathy is when you have compassion for their feelings but not necessarily feel their feelings. Imagine you fell down a hole, and you couldn’t get out. A sympathetic person would feel bad that you’re in a hole but go off their merry way. An empathetic person would get a ladder, climb down the hole, and get you out. He or she would comfort you and say, “Hey, I’ve been in this position before. Thank you for letting me help you,” or some variation of it.
When I am anxious, depressed, or just rageful, I don’t want someone to give me platitudes or tell me to find the silver lining. When my friends tell me to look on the positive side, I want to punch their face. No shit, Sherlock, I know there are always worst situations. But you telling me to look on the positive side, is basically telling me to deny my feelings. Denying feelings is a maladaptive coping mechanism, I’ve done it many years when I was younger and it made my emotional state ever worst. Instead, tell me you understand that you’ve been in my place. Tell me a similar situation where you’ve been anxious, depressed, or rageful. Tell me an incident when you’ve been mortified, betrayed and upset. I want to know all of these things because I don’t want to feel alone.
I’ve been both an empathetic person and a sympathetic person. My friend Mrs. Tree suffers from the similar mental illness that I suffer from, OCD. One day her husband, Mr. Tree, called me and said that I should talk to her because she was having bad anxiety. I went to their apartment, and I sat down and talked to her. She told me her anxieties that she had regarding a past internship, and I emphasized by telling her that I too worry about things that I’ve done in the past and am afraid of repercussions. I understood that telling her to relax or calm down wasn’t going to help. Her anxieties were real, and if I told her not to worry, it would aggravate it even more. An unfortunate part when I was sympathetic was when my friend Mr. Writer was having a depressive episode. He told me he was feeling down, and I told him that there are worst people off. He replied that he dislikes it when people tell him that because it makes him feel terrible. I denied his feelings, and I shouldn’t have done that. I should have just listened and not say anything because that’s better than shoving a positive outlook down his throat.
Even if you haven’t experienced what the person is going through, listen, it’s better than dismissing it with a positive adage. They’re telling you something that’s extremely painful and pushing it away would likely make it worst. Empathy is hard, putting yourself in a person’s shoes can be emotionally draining, but it’s worth it if you’re able to make he or she feel better.
Photo Courtesy: Roy Blumenthal (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/legalcode) via Flickr.