We’ve all had a hard time at some point, for one reason or another, and in those moments we may have reached out to someone. Perhaps someone has reached out to you in their time of need, this is not always an easy thing to help with. Do they need or want sympathy, empathy, or just someone to listen to them. And why is it considered a bad thing to pity someone? Isn’t that the same as sympathy? No, they’re not, these are all very different approaches that generally have their place. So, what’s the difference?
Above is the definition of sympathy from Google, feel free to check for yourself. Sympathy is essentially feeling sorry for someone, acknowledging their woes and you might tell them that you are there for them, so some degree. Phrases like “I’m sorry for your loss”, “sending my sympathies” etc, are frequently used to express our sadness at someone else’s suffering, in most cases it suggests that we don’t necessarily understand how they feel but we can acknowledge what they are feeling. However this isn’t always what people need, sometimes sympathy is the wrong approach. When I was working as a weight loss coach there was discussion over what was most appropriate for members, they didn’t respond well to sympathising, “Sorry to hear you had a bad week”, “it’s a shame you put on” etc, none of these things really helped the person feel they could overcome these challenges. And so we were told to use empathy, how does empathy differ from sympathy?
As you can see from the rather short description above, empathy is more than just acknowledging a person’s feelings, it’s more than just saying I feel bad about the fact that you feel bad. It’s saying I understand how you feel, I have experienced this, I have been where you are. It’s saying that you are able to feel what they’re feeling, it’s not just “I can see you’re hurting” it’s “I can feel your pain”.
In terms of weight loss we did a very relaxed version of this. We acknowledged their feelings, empathised with them – showing we can feel what they feel because we’ve been there. We showed this by giving examples, someone would come in and weigh, they would tell me about their week, what they felt went wrong and I would respond, something like “I get that, I know how you feel. I had the same issue a week/month etc ago”. This would usually be followed up with some advice on how they can work around it, deal with it, or move on from it, depending on what the issue was. This didn’t work for everyone, but in general people like to know that they’re understood, knowing you’re not the only person to feel a certain way can have a positive impact on how you feel, and how well you move through the difficulty you’re facing. A weight loss class might not seem like a hive of mental health issues, but we develop issues with food for many reasons either avoiding or using it as a coping mechanism. Making sure members were supported through the emotional aspect of dealing with food issues was an important part of the work.
So how can empathy be the wrong thing to do? It is possible to over empathise, you might have seen the below post floating around social media lately, indeed it’s what prompted this post.
How can you over-empathise? By focusing more on your own experiences than on theirs, if someone is talking to you about the things that upset them, you may be tempted to point out when you had it worse or the same, whilst doing this occasionally can show someone they’re not alone, doing it all the time can leave them feeling that you think your problems are more important, or that you don’t really want to hear theirs so you turn it back around to you. I know I’m guilty of this, I found it especially hard when I was having my own problems, it’s important to balance empathy and not to make it more about yourself than the other person. For me, when my mental health was not good, I found it incredibly hard to focus on other people’s feelings because mine were so overwhelming. It’s not always easy to get the balance right, but perhaps try looking at your interactions with them, when they bring up something that has them upset, do you tell them about something that’s upsetting you each time? You could be over empathising, sharing your problems and over empathising are not the same thing, I think this is an important difference, I have a group of friends and sometimes we just all have a bit of a rant, we don’t expect solutions from the others, we just want to have a grumble. In this instances we share our problems, empathise a bit “OMG my kids do that too” etc and maybe try to laugh it off. Remember you can empathise with someone without giving an explanation, the key is to keep the focus on the person you’re talking to and to redirect if the conversation starts to focus on you. You are, after all, trying to support someone who needs you, not the other way around. What if they don’t want to have a discussion?
This is something a lot of people have trouble with, listening. It’s easy to slip up here, especially if, like me, you just want to make things better. I find it hard not to make suggestions for solutions, but I’m working on it. Why does this matter? Because the act of talking about a problem can make it feel infinitely smaller, so allowing a person time to work through that, to get it off their chest and lighten the load, can be hugely affective in helping them. You’re helping them by just listening, taking in what they’re saying and allowing them to feel heard. Sometimes we need to do a bit of active listening, this involves responding occasionally with appropriate questions, for that to work you have to be really listening, paying attention not just to the words they use, but the way they use them, the body language they’re using if possible. Remember, listening is not about offering up solutions, not at all, this is about allowing someone a moment to walk and talk through problems they are having.
Pity & Compassion
I’ll keep this short. Pity is socially considered a bad thing yet compassion is not, nor is sympathy, generally speaking. So what is it about pity that upsets people? I think the best way I’ve had it described is that compassion is more, it’s just more. More caring, more focused, more willing, more supportive. Pity is from a safe distance with no real action involved. Psychology Today, sum it up well in this paragraph from their piece Do Not Pity Me by Aaron Ben-Zeév Ph.D.
A crucial difference between them is that compassion involves far greater commitment for substantial help. Compassion involves the willingness to become personally involved, while pity usually does not. Pity is more spectator-like than compassion; we can pity people while maintaining a safe emotional distance from them. While pity involves the belief in the inferiority of the object, compassion assumes equality in a common humanity.
So next time someone wants to talk to you, wants to share their feelings with you, listen to them, ask them questions, and try to avoid turning the conversation back to you – something that is worth noting in all conversations, not just the difficult ones.