Sympathy, Empathy and all things in between
My 10 year old son called me from school this week to tell me that he cut his face on the playground. I asked him if his glasses were broken... no... I asked if he need to come home or go to the doctor... no... So then I gave him what he really called for, which was mommy sympathy. :) I didn't feel the pain for him, or cry for him that it happened. (Empathy) I just told him I was sorry that happened and asked him how he was and gave him my love. (Sympathy) As you are out in the world engaging with people, it is important to know how to tell the difference between compassion, sympathy, empathy and all things in between.
Empathy is rarely helpful, although many of us are empaths and, without trying, feel what the other people are feeling. The reason empathy is not helpful is because it just drags you down into what that person is feeling and offers no help, guidance, love or support. I like to refer to this as getting into the mud with someone to try and get them clean. Now you both are dirty and you are getting nowhere.
Sympathy can be helpful and often times it is all we really want when we tell our stories. When we complain about work, family, friends, etc. We aren't saying "fix this for me" we are simply saying "listen and sympathize". Yes, on a soul level you are choosing this experience, but at the same time, sometimes our choices suck. :) This is often where relationships get strained. One person says "they never listen", mainly because they rarely sympathize. Often times we are trying to offer advice or fix someone, when all they want it an ear.
Compassion can be a tricky one. We use compassion in a variety of ways. We can have compassion for the Tsunami victims in Japan. We can have compassion for our dying grandmother. We can even have compassion for our children, when they are struggling with the oh so common social issues. But what is compassion really?
Wikipedia says "Compassion (from Latin: "co-suffering") is a virtue —one in which the emotional capacities of empathy and sympathy (for the suffering of others) are regarded as a part of love itself, and a cornerstone of greater social interconnectedness and humanism —foundational to the highest principles in philosophy, society, and personhood." I have blogged about compassion many times as I see it as a critical part to our human exisitance, experience and spiritual growth.
But quite honestly, I see it differently than the latin word of co-suffering. I see it as being able to understand someone on a deeper level and to not condone their actions, but understand how they are feeling anyway. You don't condone a murderer, but after learning about his abusive childhood, you might gain some compassion for him as a damaged individual who had no other skill. I see compassion as the ability to see each other as connected, human and flawless in our flaws in our wisdom of "oneness".
Insightful Inspiration of the week
Check in with your interactions this week. See yourself from the perspective of these concepts. Are there any adjustments you want to make in your interactions? Play around with it, see what you can and can not offer out easily. Maybe it is hard for you not to try and "fix". Maybe it is hard for you not to empathize and suffer with others. Make note of where you are and point yourself in the direction you want to be. As always, you are welcome to share your thoughts and experiences.