Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Sympathy and Empathy, Part 2

I don't know why I can't get this sympathy and empathy issue out of my head. Last week I shared some thoughts on the differences between the two, but I can't seem to shake the topic. Most people get songs stuck in their head, whereas I get psychological concepts playing on a loop.

I think I overstated my point that sympathy is primarily reserved for people with certain qualities of "feeling," and therefore I overstated the difference between people who tend toward the sympathetic versus those who tend toward the empathic. Sympathy is hard-wired into each human being; it is utterly natural for us. Recent neurological findings have uncovered what are called "mirror neurons," which demonstrate that we naturally "mirror" the emotions and body language we see in others. Daniel Goleman in his book Social Intelligence demonstrates how people automatically and subconsciously mimic the body language and facial expressions of others, often on micro-levels, and how that mimicking actually produces similar feelings in us to what the other person is expressing. So, if someone we talk with is sad, on a microscopic level our mouth actually curls downwards and our tear ducts are activated and that produces a sad feeling in us. That's sympathy on a primal level.

There is quite a bit of folk wisdom out there that says sympathy = feeling for someone whereas empathy = feeling with someone. What's true about that is that when you see someone in pain, and that produces a feeling in you, that is sympathy. When you encounter a homeless person and you feel pity for him, you are having a sympathetic reaction. However, the etymology of sympathy is "to feel with," which is how a lot of people define empathy, which literally means "to feel into." A sympathetic reaction is one when your emotions mirror the emotions of another person. While everyone has sympathetic reactions, there are those that feel more strongly.  Recently I was a co-speaker at a retreat, and my speaking partner was one of those people that relished opportunities to sit with people in pain, literally grieving and crying with them. She was a profoundly sympathetic person. What is most remarkable about that gift is that strongly sympathetic people can feel feelings for the other person that the person can't feel themselves. I have had therapists cry tears on my behalf that I was unable to cry. That is an incredible gift, and one I don't have.

The danger with sympathy is that we turn the feelings we have in response to another's feelings into something about ourselves. Jessica Jackley, co-founder of Kiva.org, confessed that for a while she gave to the poor in order to buy herself the right to go on with her life. That illustrates how sympathy can turn in on itself and become about us, not others. When you are experiencing an intense emotion it tends to close you to the emotions of others.

Empathy, on the other hand, is what really helps us open ourselves to others. The grammatical breakdown  - "to feel into" - means that we seek to enter into the world of another person. We seek to identify with them - their thoughts, their emotions, their assumptions, their questions. Empathy has more to do with understanding another person's feelings than it does feeling their feelings, though that may certainly happen to a degree as well. But in empathy we can seek to understand another person even when we disagree with them or don't relate to their experiences.

Empathy does NOT require that we have undergone the same experiences as another. In empathic response we are not necessarily bringing our past to bear on another person's situation. I can show empathy for a person who has lost a parent, even if I have not lost a parent. Again, the danger is that if you have experienced a similar thing that you turn it into something about your story and you lose the other person's grief in the process. Empathy is always moving towards the other person, going further, going deeper, seeking more understanding, fighting to keep the attention on the other.