Redefining empathy and sympathy, so we may actually do good
Having coffee with my friend, we looked out at the street, busy with cars hustling their passengers to work in the early light of morning—and tried to imagine a car wreck.
“Who is best able to respond?” we mused. “The empathetic bystander or the sympathetic one?” Is there even a difference between the two?
Connecting emotionally with others enables us to bring about good, even for strangers. I’m talking about the kind of good that’s altruistic, that doesn’t require compensation.
In our hypothetical car wreck, imagine we have one bystander who becomes paralyzed with panic, while another rushes in to call 911 and to help the drivers. What’s different?
This isn’t just English-major nerd stuff. It’s a way of working backward from the outcomes we want—to how we might shape our feelings for that outcome to occur.
This also isn’t just a fight with Brené Brown. Although it kinda is. In the way that an ant might fight with someone who has six zillion views on TED Talks.
So I’m putting out two new definitions that I think will help us focus more on action. Here we go:
Feeling the emotions of another, even in response to an event or experience not directly lived; a fusion of emotional experiences
e.g., My friend was so anxious about her exam that I started to absorb her stress and feel anxious, too
Tapping into one's own life experiences to imagine the emotions of another, giving rise to feelings of compassion; a responsive (but separate) emotional experience
e.g., My friend was anxious about her exam; I could relate to that because I've also been stressed at times when I've had to do something difficult
This is how I imagine sympathy:
Each of us walks around with our own well of memories and experiences. Maybe we encounter a friend having a tough day. If we are brave enough to go to our well, vulnerable enough to dip our cup into its waters, and strong enough to draw something up and out through our heart, then maybe we can offer support. Maybe we can offer compassion.
This is the bystander who can imagine the pain and fear of those who suddenly wrecked, but who is able to create enough separation from that pain in order to take supportive action.
Last fall, I wrote about the loss of my cat, Basil, and how sympathetic my husband was. My husband did the most he could do: He sat with me. And he listened. And, after some time, he opened up about how he’d felt when his mother died. This made me feel validated in my grief, like I wasn’t stupid for feeling so broken over a cat. And it made me feel that, even though I was hurting so much (and still am), I have a partner who is strong enough for me to lean into him and not fall.
If my husband had said, “I know how you feel,” or, “I feel the same way, too,” I would have screamed and thrown his clothes out into the driveway. Because he doesn’t know. He also lost Basil, but it didn’t affect him in the same way because he’s not me.
This is how I imagine empathy:
When we forget to hold our own structure, we can lose ourselves in another’s waves of emotion. Have you ever had the experience of sharing something that makes you very sad with another person, and the other person likewise becomes so sad that suddenly you find yourself giving the comfort that you were hoping to get for yourself in the first place?
This is the bystander who absorbs so much of the fear and panic of the people in the car wreck, that he is paralyzed by fear and unable to take action or provide support.
Brené Brown has a short video where she talks about empathy versus sympathy. She argues that what our friends need is empathy: they need us to climb right down the ladder into their hole and start getting rained on just the same.
I think she gets so much right about what we should say in these moments:
Do say: “I don’t even know what to say right now, I’m just so glad that you told me.”
Don’t say: Anything that starts with, “At least…” (As in, when your friend has just had a miscarriage, don’t say, “At least you know you can get pregnant.)
But where she gets it wrong is that she’s not contrasting empathy and sympathy: she’s actually contrasting a blend of empathy and sympathy with just being an asshole.
If we apply our new definitions to this video, we see that the “sympathetic” giraffe is actually just a giraffe who’s not connecting emotionally at all. When your friend hears you with detachment, but doesn’t deeply attend to you; when your friend doesn’t validate how you are feeling and instead just tries to force you into focusing on the positive; it doesn’t mean that your friend is a bad person. But it does mean that your friend is unable or unwilling, at least in this moment, to pause, take a breath, summon vulnerability, and drop into their own well in order to draw out a heart-felt response.
This is the bystander who, upon seeing the car wreck, keeps driving anyway. “Someone else will call 911,” he might say as he continues on to work. This isn’t always a bad thing. Connecting with others is a choice and it’s not always the wise one, especially between strangers. We have to be sensitive to what a relationship can support, what we can ask of it.
For Brown, empathy is climbing down in that hole to be right there with your friend. It’s letting their rain cloud rain on you, too.
The problem with Brown’s version of empathy is that what you get, in the end, is two wet animals in a hole.
That’s one problem. Another is that when we pursue people into their private spaces without permission, we make them feel unsafe, perhaps like they are being closed in on. There are only a very small number of people who I let into the spaces of me that are dark and private. Even then, the best thing my husband can do when I’m having a tough time is wait for an invitation. I feel safe when he leads with:
Is this a moment where you need for me to just listen to you right now, or are you looking for my advice?
So what about both, and? Can we be both empathetic and sympathetic?
I say yes. Perhaps, especially with someone close and especially with emotions that are powerful, we do have some kind of fusion of emotional experiences—at least initially. I think that’s very human.
But I offer these new definitions so that we can start to consider that maybe our friends need us to be more. Empathy may be enough for connecting with each other’s pain; but sympathy is what will get our friend a ladder and a warm towel.