By Kathleen Guthrie Woods
I was in a really good place. That particular day, I had been feeling optimistic about my future, about my Plan B, about my life without babies. Then someone asked me “Do you have kids?”, and I said “No,” and I got The Pity Face.
You know what I’m talking about. That look that says, “Oh you poor, pathetic loser of a lesser human.” And it really pissed me off.
Certainly I want people to understand my pain and losses, and I want to feel supported, but not at the cost of condensation and humiliation. So when I received a note from LWBer Jane about the difference between sympathy and empathy, it struck a deep chord.
“I was surprised to read the real difference and found it helped me understand why I became isolated and distanced from friends and family,” she wrote. She shared with me this powerful article, “Sympathy and Empathy—Do You Know the Difference?” on Harley Therapy’s Counselling Blog.
The authors look at historical meanings as well as contemporary usage. I hope you’ll take the time to read it through. For now, I’ll summarize it with “empathy is empowering.”
Although intended to be compassionate, “sympathy too often comes in its lower form—thinly disguised as pity,” says the authors. “Empathy, on the other hand, involves trying with great sincerity to understand what the other person is going through.”
That sounds like what I want. I don’t yet know how to ask for it, or how to educate people on this (without coming across as a crazy woman), but what I can do is practice it. (There are tips in the article.) For there is a possible hidden gift for offering empathy, for really listening to another person who is going through a tough time, says the authors. “We…might even end up being in awe of their personal strength.”