I never thought much about the difference between empathy and sympathy until my life took a turn and suddenly I received an abundance of both.
When Julian was diagnosed with leukemia, most people in my life wanted to show me they cared, and they wanted to help — but they didn’t really know what to do or say. When he died two weeks later, they really didn’t know what to do or say. And I didn’t blame them. I wouldn’t have know what to say to me, either.
Earlier this year I read a book that profoundly changed how I understand empathy and sympathy, as well as vulnerability and shame. (And trust me, after losing a child, one becomes intimate with all of the above.) The book is called Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead by Brené Brown.
As much as I loved the book, it soon became just another good literary memory as I moved on to read other great books. Then yesterday, the author posted an animated video that so beautifully captures her core message about the power of empathy. The video reminded me of how much I loved that book, and I just have to share it:
My own “hole” was about as deep and dark as they come. Very few people felt they could climb down that ladder, even if they wanted to. What I didn’t quite recognize at the time is what Brené Brown shares from her research: empathy is a vulnerable choice. Empathy is risky and painful; sympathy is not.
For someone to be empathetic with me, they need to get in touch with their own pain. They either authentically revisit a time when they experienced profound loss, or they allow themselves to really feel the pain they imagine they would feel if they were me. (The latter approach is less effective, but appreciated.)
Sympathizers, on the other hand, may have good intentions but maintain a separation from me and often say the wrong thing. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve shared about Julian, and the first thing someone asks is, “Do you have any other children?” The look of relief on their face when I say yes is equivalent to the “at least” insight from the video. At least he wasn’t your only child. I’m grateful for my older son, but nope. Not helpful.
My favorite quote from the video is right at the end: “The truth is, rarely can a response make something better. What makes something better is connection.” After Julian died, many people wanted to be able to say something to make it better. But nothing could bring Julian back. What I needed was something to help bring ME back. That something was connection.
Thanks to my personal connections combined with the grief journey I’ve described on this blog, I now feel more connected to the Universe and other people than I ever did before. And maybe that’s why the Brené Brown video struck me so deeply: I now know, without a doubt, that connections are what keep us afloat and alive. Without authentic connections with others, we could so easily be eternally lost in our dark hole.
So if there’s someone in your life who is struggling, be thoughtful about whether you are responding with empathy or with sympathy. Remember that the need for empathy isn’t limited to extremes like cancer and death — there are people in our lives who need and deserve our empathy for minor things, too.
Also, if someone in your life is struggling with something as traumatic as cancer or death, don’t try to convince yourself that you’re unable to be empathetic because you haven’t experienced the exact same thing. As I’ve written about before, pain is pain. If you are human, you’ve felt pain. And if you’ve felt pain, you have the ability to show empathy. You just have to be brave enough to be vulnerable.
You don’t need to be a bereaved parent to understand what it means to experience traumatic loss. I don’t need you to tell me, “I know how you feel because I’ve also lost a child.” I just need you to tell me, “You’re not alone, I’m here, I’ve also experienced pain.”
Because ultimately, Brené Brown says, the most important two words for connection are, “Me, too.”
Learn more about Brené Brown:
- The TEDx Talk that made her famous
- The full lecture that was used for the animation
- Her books and CDs
- Brené on Oprah’s Lifeclass
- Brené on Oprah’s Super Soul Sunday
- Brené’s website