Empathy vs Sympathy, And Why We Care.
(Because Empathy Increases the Quality of Our Relationships)
Brene Brown, author of: “Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead” explains, in this fun animation by Katy Davis, how sympathy and empathy are two diametrically opposite ways of relating to others who are experiencing difficult times. Sympathy reinforces the comfortable illusion of being separate, better and superior than those who are down on their luck; unaffected by the difficulties they are going through. Sympathy perpetuates the worldview of “them versus us”, and of “you versus me”.
Empathy, on the other hand, requires that we access, within ourselves, the emotions and the essence of what the other person is going through. Empathy forces us to let down the walls that protect us from feeling the discomfort, the pain, the anxiety, the guilt, the shame another person (or an animal for that matter) is experiencing. Empathy requires that we allow ourselves to be vulnerable enough to share in someone’s difficult challenge(s) and difficult emotions. Empathy not only asks that we be willing to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes, but also that we be willing–together–to feel and sense the inherent vulnerability of our joined, messy and unpolished humanity. While sympathy solidifies our experience of separation from others, empathy increases our sense of connection with others.
Continued from Newsletter…
But why is it so difficult, at least for most of us, to steer away from judgment that has us think to ourselves: “at least I’m not–doing–as bad as you are… I am not as big of a mess as you are” or from advice-giving that has us say out loud: “it could be much worse, look at the bright side of things, k-mon, cheer-up, think positive…”? Why is it so hard to attune to someone else’s reality without having to interject our own?
As we said above, empathy requires that we be willing to attune to the parts of us that know, first-hand, what it is like to be vulnerable, to be flawed, discouraged, less than, or not good enough. This assumes that we have the willingness and ability to access these aspects of our lives. The selves inside of us, that have access to these embodied and all too frequently painful human experiences. Unfortunately, for many of us, this is easier said than done. That is until we become aware that there are two major forces within the construct of our psyche that contribute to the powerful negation of our innate vulnerability: our inner Rule-Maker and our inner Critic.
When we become aware of the family, societal, gender, religious and philosophical rules that were part of our upbringing–so that we would fit in, and ultimately get our needs met–we then uncover what our inner Rule-Maker expects of us. These rules, which often remain unconscious because we take them at face value without ever questioning them, can often be summarized by our internalized list of “thou shall… “ AND “thou shall not/never…”.
Unfortunately, it is not the role of our Rule-Maker to point out when these internal laws are in opposition and antithetical with each other. I often see clients who feel trapped and tormented because many of their internalized rules are in direct conflict between themselves and cannot be reconciled. Because these rules have not been made conscious and challenged, something which is quite difficult to do on our own, these clients frequently find themselves in great distress while they try to appease and please their internal Rule-Maker–who, by nature, is very rigid. Recently, a client of mine became aware that he had to obey: “thou shall be attuned, honest, and emotionally available to your feelings and those of others (women especially). This is what is expected of you if you are to be a real man and a gentleman.” AND, “thou shall always present yourself as being confident and in total control; and should never be perceived as weak, vulnerable or afraid. Should this be the case, thou shall become elusive, avoidant, defensive and even aggressive; otherwise you will be less than a man and humiliate ‘us’”. These intrinsically opposite sets of laws left him unable to share his genuine feelings of vulnerability and of insecurity with his girlfriend. This lead his girlfriend to feel that he was not being honest with her and to fear that he was blatantly lying to her. Trying to obey these two sets of rules literally left him in a no-win situation. In order to honor the patriarchy of his childhood, his inner Rule-Maker was unconsciously keeping him prisoner of a set of laws he had no awareness of, but was faithfully obeying. A set of inner rules that were fundamentally irreconcilable and threatening to jeopardize his relationship with his girlfriend.
It is the job of our inner Critic to let us know that we have broken the inner dictates given to us from our family and culture of origin. In many ways, the inner Critic is the part of our mind that makes sure we obey all of the rules we have been asked to follow. Never mind that these rules are contradictory in essence, that they oppose who we are at our core, or that they are simply totally outdated and cannot be applied in the context we find ourselves in. When we do not obey the Rule-Maker and its laws, the inner-Critic guilts and shames us for not doing so. Because being accepted in our family or culture of origin increased our chances of getting our needs met, and therefore our survival, most of us did the best we could to become the person we were asked to be. That is unless we had a strong inner Rebellious self who took pride in being different and in challenging authority; but such a topic shall be for another post. In brief, the job of the inner Critic is to point out, often harshly so, how we are not following the laws set forth by our Rule-Maker. Again, shame (there is something fundamentally wrong with me) and guilt (I did something wrong and therefore I shall suffer and be punished because of it) are two of the inner Critic most powerful weapons. Because these mechanisms happen below the surface–in our limbic system–and because they happen at a much faster speed than our conscious thoughts, we end up not being aware of what is taking place in our mind. This is how most of us end up repeating our past against our best attempts to create a better present.
How do we free ourselves from the negative grip our Rule-Maker and our inner Critic have on us? Because our limbic system is also greatly involved in our emotional life–and our safety and threat responses–our intellectual understanding alone is often not enough. Our “thou shall” (Rule Maker) and our “you messed up AGAIN!” (inner Critic) are most often intensely emotionally charged. This being said, these few simple questions can be of great help to shine light on what is expected of us from our Rule-Maker and from our inner Critic. Asking ourselves:
- Is this true?
- Is this rule, this internal law I am obeying, are these beliefs I have about “X”, “Y” and “Z” true for me? … at this time, age and phase in my life?
- Is it/are they absolutely true?
Since very few things are ABSOLUTELY TRUE, especially belief systems, as we regularly ask these simple questions, we begin questioning the foundation on which we have built our lives. And therefore, we begin to choose what works for us, and what doesn’t work so well, anymore.
Lastly, a few words of caution. If the responses you get are angry, loud and non-conciliatory, if they make you cringe inside, you have most likely awakened an angry inner Critic. Responses that feel and sound like: “WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING? OF COURSE IT’S TRUE… ABSOLUTELY TRUE… HOW COULD YOU ASK SUCH A STUPID, AND DANGEROUS QUESTION? HOW DARE YOU QUESTION WHAT YOU’VE KNOWN FOR EVER? ARE YOU LOOSING YOUR MIND? WHY ARE YOU QUESTIONING THE REASONING AND VALIDITY OF WHAT YOU’VE BEEN THOUGHT ALL OF YOUR LIFE? IF YOU START QUESTIONING REALITY YOU ARE GOING TO LOOSE YOUR SENSE OF RIGHT AND WRONG, OF GOOD AND BAD… AND YOUR LIFE WILL FALL APART… AND YOU D-O-N-T WANT THAT!”. If this is the flavor of what you get back, please be reminded that this is the tone of a furious inner Critic; who is making sure that you obey the relative truth your Rule-Maker has presented to you as the absolute truth. In such a case, please be kind to yourself. Ask for the help of a trusted spouse, boyfriend/girlfriend, best friend, confident, sponsor and/or professional. As Brene Brown says: “Shame cannot survive being spoken… and being met with empathy.”
C. Nathan Bergeron, LMFT, L.Ac. ©