Empathy vs. Sympathy

I’ve written about Brené Brown before.  Her PhD and research are focused on shame.  In one of her books, she identified herself as a ‘shame researcher’.  I find this fascinating.  Shame is part of the human experience as is its cousin, humiliation, and its brother, guilt.  It takes a lot of insight to parse out our internal experiences when it comes to these three emotional experiences, doesn’t it? If shame is a full-contact emotion, then I would say that humiliation and guilt are as well.  I feel physically sick when I feel guilty, and my entire body feels on fire when I feel humiliated.  What are the differences between these emotions, and what are their antidotes? And, why is it so hard to overcome something like a shaming experience or even a humiliating one? Why is it so hard to let go of guilt?

My own therapist, who is excellent, said that shame is legitimate.  It is? Is he talking about guilt? I’ve had past therapists talk about illegitimate guilt and legitimate guilt.  And now shame is legitimate?

I gotta say, this is getting confusing.

I am headed into some intense therapy territory.  Healing and growth are dependent upon shedding shame and overcoming humiliation.  We even have to confront our guilt.

How do we do this?

Before I try to define these terms and experiences, I want to define something different.  I want to start with empathy.  Empathy is the antidote to shame, and Brené Brown provides us with an excellent definition for empathy.  More than that, she provides us with a solid differentiation between empathy and sympathy.  Sympathy is not empathy.  Most people somehow know this, but then…how is it not the same?

Watch this very short and rather entertaining animated video narrated by Brown herself.  You will then see exactly how sympathy is different from empathy.

In my mind, the one thing that sympathy does that is primarily hurtful is minimize.  It minimizes the other person’s experience by ignoring their pain.  Why? Because empathy is about connection, and we have to connect to our own pain in order to connect to another’s.  That isn’t easy.  It requires insight and emotional intelligence to do that.  It also requires mindfulness.  Mindfulness is about being present.  We must be present to ourselves to a degree in order to be present to another person.

The practice of empathy is not easy.  Before we can address our personal shame issues, however, we need to start with empathy.  Why? Because the road out of shame, humiliation, and guilt is paved with empathy.  Not empathy with others.  Empathy towards ourselves.

Practicing empathy with others is a good place to start if feeling empathy towards yourself seems too hard.

Eventually, you will be able to ask yourself, “If you would show empathy and kindness to your friend, then why not show it to yourself? How are you so different?” And the answer to those questions can provide an immense amount of insight into your personal struggles and move you forward.



5 Comments on “Empathy vs. Sympathy

  1. I have to say, this is beautiful.

    It is beautiful because it reminds us of the lack of emphaty, of the lack of understanding we show some times. Even to our dearest friends we fall into the “At least” trap.

    The video was great, so it is your article. Thanks.

    • Oh, I have caught myself “at least” to my kids! And I had to step back and think on it. And then minimizing things about my own life. It resonated. I am so glad it resonated with you, too. Thanks for the kind comment! Always appreciated.

      • You’re more than welcome 🙂 I love to find things which teach us how to become better humans. Most of the time, for most of the people, the negative actions are driven more by subconscious routine than anything else.

        • I would agree. I suspect it’s just not knowing what else to say or do. “You mean there are other options?” Increasing interpersonal skillfulness is not something that many people know exists. As in…that’s a “thing”. And you can do it!

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