Are You Empathetic or Sympathetic? There’s a Big Difference

“…Tell me about your despair,

And I’ll tell you about mine…” Mary Oliver

While nothing much is as black and white as things sound, for the purposes of discussion, here are the definitions.

Empathy: I understand some of what you are feeling and going through because I’ve been through similar experiences myself.

Sympathy: I feel what you feel. If you’re sad, I’m sad. If you’re angry, I’m angry. If you’re happy so am I.

As a trainer of therapists and the general public for over 30 years I’ve been teaching the differences. You see with all due respect I don’t want or need to feel what you feel. You don’t need my sympathy unless a loved one has died.  But I damn sure want to do my best to empathize with your pain or problems and what you are going through.

In my very early years as a counselor I thought I was supposed to feel your pain in my own body. That is what I’d been doing since early childhood – feeling my mother’s pain. Therapists who don’t know the difference will experience burn out pretty quickly. You see we all have enough pain or problems and thus we don’t want yours to seep into our bodies and souls.

Now if you have young children or aging or infirmed loved ones who cannot articulate their needs, then sympathy is absolutely necessary. However, if your kids are 12 or over, ideally you will switch to empathy with them because if you are still “feeling” their pain and hurts and disappointments they will struggle to separate themselves from you in healthy or less than healthy ways.

You see if we tend to feel what other adults feel that can tend to regress them, shrink them and make them feel small, and perhaps unable to feel their own feelings for fear they are causing us to feel uncomfortable.

Bottom line – Empathy elevates, lifts others up, and sometimes temporarily or permanently lifts them out of their feelings and confirms that they can deal with whatever is going on inside them or outside of them.

So, sympathy tends to shrink, and empathy tends to elevate. Many men and women identify and think of themselves as “empaths,” but based on the above when you or I feel what another adult feels, we are “sympaths.”

Many highly intellectually intelligent people confuse the two terms and some even use them interchangeably as if they mean the same thing, but they don’t. Emotionally intelligent people empathize.

Oh, the comfort—
The inexpressible comfort of feeling
safe with a person,
Having neither to weigh thoughts,
Nor measure words—but pouring them
All right out—just as they are—
Chaff and grain together—
Certain that a faithful hand will
Take and sift them—
Keep what is worth keeping—
and with the breath of kindness
Blow the rest away.

George Eliot

THE CROW’S MESSAGE: Are We Afraid or Anxious?

If I take death into my life, acknowledge it, and face it squarely, I will free myself from the anxiety of death and the pettiness of life—and only then will I be free to become myself.” Martin Heidegger

In my last blog post I talked about the differences between depression and despair. For me to really work my own despair or really listen to anyone’s, I have to be connected to the anxiety that I have numbed with alcohol, work addiction, love addiction, and thus, avoided, suppressed and discounted, and most of all, confused with fear all the while being diagnosed and treated for depression.  Freud tells us that anxiety “is a riddle whose solution would be bound to throw a floodlight on our whole mental existence.”

Anxiety, unlike fear, has no external source, cause, or cure, unlike it’s near relative fear. Fear has an object. If I’m afraid of flying, which I used to be, talk therapy and immersion therapy and then getting in a plane can make the fear disappear. If I’m afraid of the dark, then I just keep the lights on. If I’m afraid of lions, then I don’t go to the jungle or the park; but the anxiety that comes from being on the planet and confronting my mortality is amorphous, ephemeral, but just as damn real as any lion. Kierkegaard says, “Whereas fear sharpens the senses, unrecognized anxiety dulls the spirit” as well as the soul and creativity, not to mention any connection to something divine if that is what one is searching for. Once fear is identified I can fly, fight or freeze. Anxiety is a disorder of desire for something that we can’t put a name to and can’t see, taste, hear or smell but everyone knows it is there if we just get quiet enough. The dictionary says, “Fear is an unpleasant emotion caused by the belief that someone or something is dangerous, likely to cause pain or a threat.” The dictionary goes on to say anxiety “is a feeling of worry, nervousness, a dis-ease about an uncertain outcome.”

The philosopher Karl Jaspers speaks of anxiety this way, “a feeling of restlessness… a feeling that one… has not finished something… or that one has to look for something.” After my divorce I went to my quiet, windy mountain cottage to look at my anxiety right in the eye because I have been anxious my whole life. The Catholic monk and mystic Thomas Merton wants us to know, “anxiety is the mark of spiritual insecurity.”

One of the deepest forms of anxiety is “disintegration anxiety.”  This is the anxiety that something or someone might destroy our inner-most self, and to put it simply, we don’t know what is going to happen to us in the future except death for certain and then what?

When the preacher that baptized me over on Sand Mountain when I was nine years old and laid his bony hand on my shoulder and pronounced that I’d be a preacher, I started asking myself, my mom, my god, preachers and priests what to do and not do. However, Merton goes on to say anxiety comes from “being afraid to ask the right questions because they might turn out to have no answer.”

So, am I finally, at the tender age of 68, poised to start asking the right questions? Am I ready to follow the Christian theologian Paul Tillich’s advice who says one of the cures for my despair and anxiety is to “believe you are accepted” and to accept myself questions, despair, bone loneliness and all in the words of the old spiritual, “Just as I am without one plea…”

The post-modern novelist, Walk Percy, says “Anxiety summons us to an authentic experience,” and if I strip down to all that I have learned, felt, seen and heard, then one way to move out of despair and anxiety is to strip away as many false selves that have been created over the decades in my on-going search for happiness.

Are you afraid or anxious? Even though these words are used interchangeably by very intelligent people.  I hope after reading this short blog that it may help you sort it out as I continue to do so.

Anxiety is altogether different from fear and similar concepts…” Kierkegaard