Learning the difference between sympathy and empathy

Empathy and sympathy are both feelings and emotions we experience as human beings but there are distinct differences attached to these two states of emotions. Sympathy is a feeling of pity you have for a person without specifically understanding the emotion they are undergoing. In most cases you may not really understand the other person’s predicament but are aware of his plight and discomfort. So you feel sympathy for the person.

On the other hand when you are fully aware of the experience that the other person is undergoing, you feel with the emotion the person is experiencing. In short you feel empathy for the person. It is a state where you can literallyput yourself in the other person’s place and understand their plight. The feeling of empathy thus implies an active involvement with the person concerned.

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This week I clicked on a link on facebook that linked to a blog post of a mom of many who was admitting she did not find her recent pregnancy news to be good news, necessarily. While she was grateful to have a new life, she dreaded her upcoming pregnancy and sleepless nights with a newborn.

There was lots of “here, here”-ing in the comments. But one stood out. A woman said she had recently been holding her son in her arms as his wife went through her fifth miscarriage and their family would be willing to take the blog writers infant if she so desired after birth. Someone, not the blog author, had responded angrily to this comment when I read at the time (more could have responded by now this was a little over a day ago).

Both the commenter and the responder demonstrated a lack of empathy. Surely they both pitied. One pitied the author and was, in her mind, proposing something that would help everyone. The other pitied the commenter by not understanding the pain going on in her family.

I have endured primary infertility, miscarriage, a rush of births in a short period, and secondary infertility. I understood the author’s pain, but I understood the commenter’s pain too. I’ve lived both of them. It’s upsetting to find yourself in an unexpected pregnancy when you had been trying to avoid for a variety of valid reasons but it’s also devastating to want a child in your arms and be denied and then hear someone else complain at what sounds to you like hitting the jack pot.

The simple truth is, unless you’ve lived the trials another is going through, you cannot possibly empathize with them. And it’s a severe lack of empathy that causes people to tell women who’ve miscarried that their lost child “had something wrong with him or her.” A woman whose been there can tell you that it doesn’t matter they wanted him or her. Or to hear, “well, at least you know you can get pregnant.” A lot of good that does if you can’t carry the baby to term is what I know I’ve thought as well as many moms with babies in heaven but none on earth have told me.

It’s also a lack of empathy that causes sufferers of multiple miscarriage or unexplained infertility to lash out at writers of posts complaining about “yet another baby” or make the misguided offer to adopt the child when clearly that’s not what the author was asking for.

Like I’ve said, I’ve lived both those lives and am currently in a state to where my heart went out to both the commenter and the author for their plights. Neither cross is easy to bear, much less kiss. For each of these people, they bared their souls and someone misinterpreted this.

So, now I know, how do you support someone you have no way of empathizing with? Well, let me tell you some of the nice things people have done for me. At the time of loss just simply hearing: “I’m so sorry. I’m praying for you and Jeff and your little saint.” were far more comforting than anything else. Those of us who have been abundantly blessed usually benefit by being gently reminded of our blessing “Congratulations” is often sufficient and if we express thoughts of dread or just plain exhaustion validating our feelings is always a great thing. And by validating don’t say “I understand” if you don’t (some moms of many are overjoyed with each new positive pregnancy test) but it’s okay to say, “You can feel that way, it’s totally valid.” Or something like that. But mostly, just listen. Listening is one of the greatest gifts you can give to anyone facing these kinds of pains. Because inherent in both is a sense of shame and often guilt. “If I could have done this or that baby might have made it.” “If I hadn’t taken such and such medication 10 years ago, I might be pregnant now.” “I am a terrible mother for thinking these things.” I’ve heard them all. Is it any wonder Sarah laughed when she heard the Angels and then immediately lied about it?

Doubt and pain are not things that make us bad people or even bad Catholics or bad Christians. In fact, they are things that help us grow has humans and Christians and Catholics. They give us the opportunity to more fully rely on God. We cannot underestimate the gifts they have the potential to become even if we can’t see it that way in the moment.

The doubts and pains of others also are opportunities to show our love and compassion with others even if we cannot empathize with their particular struggle. Pity is often not what others need and if we cannot understand their pain or comtemplate it, we should prayerfully ask God how to love others where they are at from where we are at so we can all become more Christlike in our love for one another.