I’ve seen a whole lot of dumb shit in my life done in the name of empathy.
Empathy, most interestingly, is one of those words that is misused more than I’d like to admit. I remember walking around school thinking that I had a lot of empathy for others, and following into my young adulthood I went around thinking that I had boundless amounts of empathy for everyone. Anytime there was empathy needed I would come in on my trusty steed waiting to save thy fair maiden (or knight) from whatever befell them. Yeah, I was your regular empathetic guy. Pretty great wasn’t I?
Well, what I was thinking of was sympathy, not empathy. Even worse I was using sympathy as a way to get people to like me because I didn’t know how to be likable on my own. Sympathy was my weapon of choice and I would emotionally blackmail others into doing my bidding because of it.
Okay, let’s say I had a friend who I had given lots of sympathy to because he or she was going through a hard time. Normally, I would have sat with them for hours, maybe even hours for several days, until they were feeling better. Of course this is a good deed, I mean I doubt anyone reading this would have any issues with the idea of me helping someone. But you see it was always at an emotional price. Whenever I needed something? God dammit you better be there or I would cry the heavens down — figuratively of course. You would hear about all the times I was there for you, and now you weren’t for me. You’re so evil. You would eventually feel so guilty that you’d have to do what I needed.
Sound like someone you know? Maybe even yourself? Read on.
So essentially that wasn’t empathy. It was sympathy, and even worse it was manipulation. I don’t know what you call that, perhaps covert Narcissism? I dunno. Regardless, I didn’t have a clue about empathy because I only gave a shit about myself. I only did things when I knew they would benefit me. If you weren’t high up in the social ladder and you had nothing to offer me, emotionally or socially, then I wouldn’t want to know. I was really quite the selfish person. Some knew and stayed well away, others, well, they feel into my trap.
Yeah, I really thought I was this amazing guy the helps and comforts his friends. People rarely introspect to a level which analyses their own paradigms.
Anyway, I remember it all came to a head when I was volunteering at a charity and I was giving this girl my lunch because she didn’t have any. Usually I had lots, she didn’t have any. So I shared my food.
One of the staff confronted me and asked why I was doing that and I told them, she has no food, I’m being empathetic. And she corrected me,
t’fuck you know about her struggle, Raymond? Do you know why she doesn’t have any food, or why she waits for you to give her some?
And I stood there a-blank. I couldn’t answer her, not in the slightest. I couldn’t speak for the first time in my life. I was open-mouthed, wide, but nothing to say.
You keep this up and she’ll have you buying her a 3-course lunch before you know it and you’ll be the one without food. Stop it. Stop it now.
This was all new to me you see, I had never worked with people at this level of poverty in my life, ever, and I had joined this place because I wanted to give back some of the good that I had received.
It turned out I was the one that had a lot to learn. My first lesson was that sympathy and empathy are not interchangeable. They are two entirely different concepts. Having sympathy can open you up to be manipulated, having empathy means that you know what it feels like to be the manipulator. You see where I’m going with this?
The staff member had empathy because she knew where the situation was headed, I had sympathy because I saw someone starving with no lunch. She understood the girl and me — she saw what was coming.
Think of it this way. When I was a resident in a psychiatric facility I felt as if I had been fucked like a train. Barely did I feel connected to any of the staff, and I didn’t feel at all like I could relate to any of the residents. Oh, sure, they knew what I was going through and they treated me accordingly because it said so in their problem solving sheets or whatever it is that they fault-find from. But I didn’t feel like they saw me as a human.
But when I went to a charity that dealt with Mental Health it was the first time I had ever met people I could relate to, felt listened to, and more importantly didn’t put up with my crap. You see, most of them had gone through the process that I had been through, they knew what it was like, they were there for me. Understanding was the crucial difference. I felt at home there
Through there I learned about empathy and how it’s often misused as sympathy, and also most importantly understanding. Understanding usually follows from a great deal of lived experience.
But let’s not stop there, most people have empathy for something. When a teenager pulls back his friend from the naked flame of a match, worrying that his hand will get burned. It can come from a past experience of burning themselves on a match, or watching another friend or family being burned on a match.
Empathy isn’t all nicey nicey wishy washy either. I remember a distinct period in my life when my manager hauled me over the coals for messing up with something quite bad that I had done at work. She knew what I was thinking, and she had been there before, and like her manager, she really laid into me. But of course I still had a job, she made it clear that they weren’t in the business of sacking people at the first hurdle, or putting them up for review. She didn’t do it because she hated me, she did it because she wanted to keep me.
The result? I weirdly felt really respected and I sure as hell didn’t do that again. In fact she gave me such a good ass-kicking that I get the sweats whenever the situation arises again.
So yeah. The precise difference between empathy and sympathy is understanding. When I was younger I would always tell my friends that they were awesome and special whenever they were going through a hard time. But whatever they were experiencing I hadn’t been through before so I had zero practical advice to give them.
But then I guess it depends. Through my years of introspection and wandering the world I’ve learned that people would rather hear comforting lies than harsh truths. Sometimes sympathy is the only option available.