Today’s post is inspired by Dr. Brene Brown’s work on empathy. Empathy, as she states in the video above, is feeling with people. Sympathy, on the other hand, is feeling sorry for people. Empathy connects. Sympathy disconnects. Empathy says, “I know what that feels like, or at least I’m glad you told me what it feels like because I want you to know you’re not alone. I’m here.”, whereas sympathy says, “Wow, that sounds terrible, sorry you have to deal with that!” (and then slowly backs away to the comfortable sphere where it doesn’t have to feel your pain with you).
Okay, so empathy is great and wonderful, but why do we care? Because empathy requires vulnerability, and vulnerability is what connects us most to each other in this world. We all have a need to feel connected, loved, and accepted because we’re human beings–we’re wired that way. We’re starving for connection, and we live in a world where it’s harder and harder to connect because we’re busy hiding behind our screens.
So why does empathy require vulnerability? After all, how hard is it to be there with someone through their pain? Don’t we do that pretty frequently for those we love? Surprisingly, we don’t. To be truly empathic with someone, we have to tap into a part of ourselves that can connect with the pain the other person is currently feeling. For example, if someone is feeling hurt because they got left out, it would be hard for us to respond empathically unless we were able to genuinely connect with our own pain and communicate something like, “I know what that feels like, and it sucks. I hate when I feel not included. I always feel embarrassed and hurt, too.” If we aren’t willing to admit to ourselves that we have had times when we’ve felt left out or even just hurt by something someone did, it will literally be impossible for us to connect with someone else’s feelings about it. We have to first acknowledge that pain in ourselves, then be willing to share it (which is vulnerable) so the other person knows they aren’t alone in it.
It’s much easier for us to be sympathetic, but remain safely distant with something like, “I know that can be rough when people don’t invite you, but you can just make sure you’re the one who plans something next time. Then you won’t get left out!” This may be where your empathetic conversation takes you eventually, but all the person needs to hear first is that you understand and accept their feelings about the situation, they DON’T want you to try and fix it or make light of their pain. As Brene Brown put it, an empathic response rarely starts with ‘At least’. If we start with “at least”, we’re trying to “silver-line” their situation for them. For example: “I had a miscarriage.” “At least you know you can get pregnant.” “My son is failing out of school.” “At least your daughter is a straight-A student.”, “My marriage is falling apart.” “At least you have a marriage”, etc.
These “at least” responses are often well-intentioned, but misguided because they end up being self-serving. Instead of being willing to walk into someone else’s pain and be with them in it empathically, we stop ourselves from feeling our own pain because it’s uncomfortable, and in so doing often end up shaming, blaming, or “silver–lining” their pain instead, which causes huge disconnection between us.
My favorite example of this is one of Brene Brown’s classic stories she uses where a young girl comes home from school crying because the kids at school laughed at her and wouldn’t sit with her at lunch. She says that sometimes well-meaning moms will respond to their daughter with something along the lines of “Well, I told you to wear those nicer clothes I bought you! And pull your hair back, for Pete’s sake, how many times do I need to tell you?!” ……Empathic?
No, because it would be really scary and vulnerable for the mom to dig deep and connect with the young, insecure, scared little girl inside of her that remembers feeling that way in 7th grade and hates thinking about how painful it was to be left out. But because she couldn’t go there, she ended up shaming her daughter for feeling sad and hurt about the way the kids treated her at school. Now how do you think that daughter is going to feel about herself, her mom, and the other kids at school now? Spoiler alert: not good. She’s going to have a really hard time processing why she feels the way she feels and most likely she’ll learn to stop sharing painful emotions with people she loves and fast-forward to adulthood, she’ll struggle to feel connected in relationships and be unhappy.
Feel like that escalated quickly? That’s why it is SO important to be aware of where we struggle to connect with our own emotions. If we have a really hard time acknowledging vulnerable emotions even to ourselves, we need to be extra careful with how we communicate with others, because until we can allow ourselves to be vulnerable with our deep pain, we’re probably doing more damage to our relationships than we realize when we don’t empathize with people who need our support. And if we’re unintentionally shaming, blaming, or “silver-lining” people when they’re coming to us for support, guess what’s going to happen soon? They’ll stop coming, and we’ll lose relationships with people we truly care about.
If you struggle with empathy and vulnerability, we highly highly recommend anything written or spoken by Brene Brown, along with potentially starting therapy with a therapist who is willing to work on your emotions with you, and taking the RELATE Assessment to open the lines of communication about vulnerable topics in your relationship with your partner.