Friday, February 28, 2014

Sympathy vs. Empathy

So what is the difference between sympathy and empathy? Is there a difference?
We've probably all been shown both sentiments from others when we are going through a difficult situation, whether we've known the difference or not. Maybe we've all shown those same sentiments ourselves, to our own loved ones during their times of heartbreak...

Google defines SYMPATHY as follows:
1. feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else's misfortune
    the formal expression of pity or sorrow for someone else's misfortune; condolences
2. understanding between people; common feeling
   support in the form of shared feelings or opinions
    agreement with or approval of an opinion or aim; a favorable attitude
   relating harmoniously to something else; in keeping
    the state or fact of responding in a way similar or corresponding to an action elsewhere

Sounds like a pretty good trait to exhibit right? I mean, it all seems lovely, doesn't it?

Google defines EMPATHY as follows:
1. the ability to understand and share the feelings of another

Simple as that.

Really, those two terms seem to be interchangeable when you see them on paper. But in real life situations, I think there's a huge difference between showing sympathy for a person and having empathy for them. (Notice how I said 'showing sympathy' and 'having empathy'? Well, it's because I think sympathy is just that: a big show. But let's get back to those definitions for a second...)

Have you ever had one of those experiences when someone is telling you something or explaining a situation and you can totally tell they are lying because they are just over explaining things? Giving you way too many weightless details and giving the same information over and over using different words? We've all been there, right? That person was probably thinking they sounded really convincing, when in actuality, everything came out more like word vomit. I feel that way about the definition of sympathy. Too much, Google, too much.

On the other hand, think about the definition I got for empathy... Simple. Conclusive. Direct.


If you haven't seen THIS VIDEO about the power of empathy, you've missed out.
She states that "empathy fuels connection, sympathy drives disconnection"
If you're driving down the road and you see a car wreck, and you gawk as you drive by hoping to catch a gory glimpse of carnage for your entertainment, there's no empathy for those people who might be injured. There's no connection there. If, however, you drive by and pray for the safety of those passengers, take a look in the rear view mirror at you kids and thank God for their safety because maybe you've been there, and then make sure you're being a cautious, courteous driver, you've made a connection with those people and what happened to them. No, you didn't have to stop and be the hero that pulls them from the wreckage to make that connection.

But empathy isn't about just seeing someone else's misfortune and learning from it or praying for them. It's about truly putting yourself in their position and sharing that heartache. In the video, she talks about the 4 qualities of empathy: perspective taking, staying out of judgement, recognizing emotions in others, and communicating. Empathy is not only feeling FOR people, it's feeling WITH people, like is explained in the video.

Perhaps my favorite part of that video is when she says, "rarely, if ever, does an empathic response begin with 'at least'" ... In my own situation, I hear this way too often.
"At least Kannon doesn't have it too"
"At least she doesn't have more problems"
"At least she's not in pain all the time"
"At least she can smile a little"
"At least you can make all her choices for her"
"At least she doesn't talk back like my daughter"
"At least you don't have to chase her all over the grocery store"

Another thing I come across all the time, especially over social media, is the one-upping. People try to top your story with their own, in turn, basically calling the attention back to them and leaving you feeling more alone and desperate than before they opened their mouth. No doubt those people want to help you feel better, but it just doesn't work like that. If I am feeling overwhelmed about London having two seizures one night, telling me about your child that has ten seizures per night doesn't help. Yes, there is a certain perspective that can come with me knowing about your child, but it doesn't negate my feelings.

When I had my (very early) miscarriage, I was speaking to a few family members about it and one of them said to me, "I hope it never happens to me" and with that, was pretty much done with the conversation. Was that empathy? No way! She pitied me. Obviously nobody wants heartbreak to come to them; we don't wish for our own misfortune. But to be so casual and flippant about a person's trials is not in any way empathetic.

Don't try to put a silver lining around people's heartache. Share your stories with them, yes. Let them know you have been there, but only if you HAVE been there!
Sharing similar experiences can be helpful, except when it comes from a selfish place. If you want the attention redirected onto you, that's a selfish place. If you are 'one-upping' that person with your more horrific story, that's a selfish place.

Empathy is a little more spiritual, in my opinion; more humble. I don't think empathy can exist without humility. I do believe that sympathy can motivate a lot of good deeds to be done... but the core of those deeds is probably a little on the selfish side; more arrogant... the deed-doer wants to make themselves feel good, and helping the less-fortunate just happens to be a side effect of that.

I could probably never explain things as well as the woman in the video does... but here's my take on it in a nutshell:

Sympathy is REJECTION of a person's situation. We see what they're going through, we can acknowledge it, we can feel sorry for them, but in the end, we let the thought leave our mind because such a sad thing could just never happen to us. We reject that scenario.
Empathy is REACTION to that situation. We see them suffering, we acknowledge it, we make a connection with it, and we share that heartache with them. We help carry the burden. We don't do it because we want to feel good about ourselves by being a hero; we do it only because we feel their emotions as our own.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

The Incident

Back in December my family and I, along with my parents, my in-laws and my sister and her family were in Salt Lake for my son's dance recital. We decided to grab dinner across the street from the venue. Well, because the place was SO crowded, it took us forever to get, literally, just across the street. We should have just walked, but whatever. Parking was a joke, and both my husband and I were a little short tempered with each other, London needed to be changed and it had just been a long day. When we got inside (finally!) I went to the bathroom to change London's diaper... well, there was no changing table, and I was hardly able to get the wheelchair in there at all. I was so frustrated (really, the drive over there was ridiculous, we were all hungry, and like I said, tense words were spoken!) and I really started to feel like the whole world was out to get me. It seemed like the walls were just creeping closer and closer in a room that was already not made for London and I. So I went back out and, probably rather gruffly, told my husband that we should just go home. I'm sure at this point there were already tears in my eyes, the place was packed, I didn't want to go all the way out to the car to change London in the FREEZING cold (remember, no parking) only to come back in again, and I was probably dehydrated and low on blood sugar. Naturally my bad attitude resulted in some bad attitude given back to me from my husband and since Kannon was already eating (he had gone over with my parents) he challenged me... Which made me feel worse.

I was breaking down and I felt it, and I just wanted to get out of there.

Everyone started 'shh'ing me, and it just wasn't what I needed. I said some extremely bad words, right there at the door of the restaurant, and slammed it on my way out. I needed to go! I felt like I couldn't breathe, I was completely defeated for the day, and I wanted to cry myself to sleep. Thomas came out after me and there were a lot more tense words exchanged. I went back in to get the kids (I was freaking leaving!) and there was more 'shh'ing... my mom and mother-in-law were trying to calm me down and it just wasn't working, Thomas was pretty upset with me (I'm sure he was embarrassed to be with the crazy woman) and I felt like nobody would just let me go.

My mom and mother-in-law got London into the bathroom and, between the two of them, changed London's diaper on the 12 square inches of counter space by the sink. In the meantime, of course, other people are coming in and out of the two-stall bathroom probably thinking to themselves that the woman crying is completely off her rocker and should be institutionalized. So I'm standing in this tiny bathroom, crying, muttering to myself that I just want to go home and have my nervous breakdown, while my mom and MIL are trying to get London taken care of, and there are a few kids coming out of the stalls who will be needing the sink that is not really accessible because of our freak show, and I just want to disappear into a black hole. My mom and MIL are still 'shh'ing me and telling me that everything is ok and all I can do is cry and list the reasons that things aren't ok... like the fact that there's no changing table, or that the bathroom isn't handicap accessible, and that everything is so difficult. Well, those kids who were so kindly (probably out of terror!) waiting for the sink? Their mom was holding the door open (which was behind me) and as I went to leave after London was tucked back into her wheelchair, she said to me, "No, it isn't fair"

And finally someone was just listening.

Instead of trying to fix it, or tell me to calm down, someone just validated my feelings.
(But thank goodness for my mom and MIL doing what they did, too!)

So after all that, we're standing back near the door to the restaurant, sort of blocking the aisle to the tables while I got things shoved back into London's backpack and I hear a woman behind us saying some stuff about blocking the way and standing right in the middle of everything...

It was obvious that she was talking about us. And it was obvious that she didn't care is she was overheard. I bit the insides of my cheeks to keep from totally just flying off the handle on her, when, bless his heart, my father-in-law looked at her and said, "well excuse the shit out of us!" And then all the sudden Big Mouth was changing her tune, feigning confused innocence, and claiming she was talking to her son. Yes, Big Mouth, maybe you were talking to your son, but you were very clearly talking ABOUT me and my handicapped daughter standing between you and your onion rings.

Finally we left. I cried pretty much the entire way home. I hated the situation and I hated myself for letting it get to me. I'm sure I made a scene and embarrassed everyone.

To the woman who agreed that things weren't really fair for moms like me, thank you. You honestly have no idea how much I needed to hear that.

To Big Mouth, you should be ashamed of yourself. I'd be humiliated if my children or spouse said the things you said considering the situation that was painfully obvious right there in front of you. I hope I can teach my kids more tolerance, patience, and empathy than you displayed that night.

Looking back, I'm just grateful that I had my mom and MIL there to take care of things when I obviously couldn't. And I'm glad that my FIL had the guts I didn't have to call Big Mouth out on her comments.
(Apparently Big Mouth went back to her table and told her husband what happened and he asked if she'd like him to go 'kick his ass'... LOL)

So anyway, it was something that happened.