This marvelous little cartoon explaining the difference between empathy and sympathy has been floating around emails and Facebook for some time now. If you have not yet had a chance to view it (or even if you have), take two minutes to watch it. It is well worth it.
Dr. Brown’s observation that empathy drives connection and that sympathy drives disconnection is spot on. It is faster and easier to respond in a sympathetic manner that acknowledges the pain and then minimizes it than it is to share in the misery of another.
And it’s not just for expediency that sympathy is easier but also to protect our own feelings, especially when the person that we are dealing with is someone we love intensely. Ironically, we too often sympathize rather than empathize with our love ones not because we don’t care but rather because we care so much. Our emotions are so intertwined with theirs that we rush in to quash our own big feeling by employing logic and ration.
Our lizard brain takes over and the message is loud in clear: must fix this.
Phrases like “look on the bright side,” “it could be worse,: or the dreaded “at least…:” come tumbling out of our mouths in a typically ineffective attempt to stop our loved one’s distress and our own distress as well. We just want to fix it and in the absence of being able to do so, we want it to go away.
We begin painting their silver linings.
Your child doesn’t place at a meet. Look on the bright side, you were able to compete.
Your partner loses out on a promotion. It could be worse, you could have no job.
Your sister loses her beloved cat. At least he lived a good long life.
None of these responses are designed to hurt the ones we love. Quite the opposite, in fact.
Yet, we need to remember to meet emotion with emotion, not with ration. First, the rational response doesn’t take away the validity of the emotional response. If your sister’s cat died, she misses your cat and she is sad. The fact that he lived a long time does not diminish her sadness. And, second, the rational statement makes the person you are comforting feel worse. Yes, so in addition to being sad about the cat, your sister feels ashamed for appearing to be ungrateful for the time they had together.
As Dr. Brown said, “Rarely can a response make something better. What makes something better is connection.”
Sit with your loved one, listen to their feelings, try to keep your own in check and simply say, “I know this is hard,” “I am here for you,” or, as Dr. Brown suggests, “I am so glad you told me.”
When the other person’s emotions begin to lessen in intensity, they will have the energy to paint their own silver linings. The defeated athlete will start to talk about what went well and how she can improve next time. The passed over partner will begin to think of the upsides or opportunities that are available now that the promotion is not. And the sad sibling will remember with fondness the time spent with her pet.
The autonomy to paint one’s own silver linings is one gift we give someone when we express empathy. The space to honor big and scary feelings with someone we love is another. But the greatest gift of all is the chance to know another person’s soul and demonstrate to that person that you are willing to sit in a place of discomfort to bring them comfort in their time of need.
Connection: that in and of itself may he best silver lining of all.