Brené Brown, and Sympathy Versus Empathy

In my last blog post, I talked about Brené Brown’s take on empathy as an antidote to shame. This week’s blog is a part two for last week, following up with the difference between empathy and sympathy. Watch the 3 minute video linked here, and come back!

Brené Brown on Empathy video:

Image Source: Screenshot from video linked

Sometimes we inadvertently put distance between ourselves and the person in pain by the way in which we respond to their pain. We may think we are being supportive, but slight differences in our communication can be the difference between the other person feeling supported or shut down. Brené specifically mentions a common sympathy tendency to try to find the silver lining for someone’s pain, with phrases that usually start with “At least…”. While it may come with good intentions, trying to silver line someone’s pain is like telling them their pain isn’t worth acknowledging, or that it’s too much to handle.

The four qualities of empathy Brené talks about are perspective taking, staying out of judgment, recognizing emotion in other people and communicating it. Simply, empathy is “feeling with people”. It’s not easy to sit with someone’s pain, and for that reason sometimes getting in the sympathy mindset instead of the empathy mindset feels more comfortable. Possibly subconsciously, the distancing that sympathizing does can makes us feel like the pain doesn’t have to effect us. Whereas when we allow ourselves to dive into empathy, we feel a little of that person’s pain along with them. It opens up our vulnerabilities and forces us to face them. There’s a certain bravery that allows us to do that, to expose ourselves to that pain, but the benefit in the end is connection. It can be easier to face those vulnerabilities again when we have done emotional healing work on ourselves. On the other hand, if we see the pain someone else is experiencing and we find ourselves running from them, that can tell us where we also need to heal- where we may be running away in our own lives.

None of us should have to suffer our pain alone. The goal with building empathic connections is to be able to take turns supporting each other and keeping each other company through pain. “Rarely can a response make something better, what makes something better is connection.”

Do you tend to fall into sympathy or empathy more easily? Why do you think that is?