YariLoves | On Empathy and Sympathy and Compassion and Pity
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On Empathy and Sympathy and Compassion and Pity

Sympathetic love is a love where you’re basically saying “I’m doing this because I feel bad for you. An empathetic love is, “I do this because your pain is also mine”
~Wes Moore

I’ve noticed sometimes compassion and pity seem to melt into each other. I’m speaking for myself of course. What starts as empathy and a genuine “I feel you”, can turn into I should do this for you and I should show up this way and slowly morphs into “I feel bad for you.”

Not always, but sometimes. It also happens with myself. Where I might feel compassion for myself for a “wrong choice” and allow myself to be less harsh with myself which then starts to feel like “I’m not capable” and that’s why I should be more lenient.

We’ve all had a pity party at one time or other, I assume. And in a way, there is a time and place for that. Certainly not one that lasts too long but sometimes a good old “curl up in the fetal position” is what I might need to allow myself to process something that might be bothering me. To calm my analytical, judgmental mind.

I listened to an episode of the Everything Happens Podcast and the quote above from Wes Moore stood out to me. I think sometimes I might do something, say something or act a certain way out of pity and not necessarily because that’s how I feel to be. I wonder how much of that is that I would want to be allowed some pity if I was in a similar situation. I wonder how much of it is my need to be babied a bit when a harsh situation comes along.

And yet, I feel that I’ve learned much more from some tough love conversations and confrontations that I’ve experienced. Sometimes that sympathy, while it feels good at the moment is not really what I need, but it’s what I think I want.

Let me be sad, let me whine, let me be angry. Let me blame everything and everyone but myself. And yet, there’s no growth in that.

Which is not to say there is no room for empathy. And that we should always resort to tough love practices in any and all situations. You have to read the room. But how do we develop empathy in the way that Wes Moore describes it? How do we recognize when we’re saying “your pain is my pain” and not “I feel bad for you.”

I don’t think it necessarily comes from a place of wanting to talk down to someone or to feel like someone else is beneath you. Maybe that’s what we’ve been taught that empathy looks like. Feeling like if we have more, feel better or are in any way in a better place than the other person it’s “our duty” to help them. But are we really doing it because we can place ourselves in their shoes and share their pain and hold space for them or are we just doing it because it’s “my duty”? Because “I feel bad for you.”

I was talking to someone who was going through something at the moment. I found myself feeling bad for them. What a tough break. And the empathy became a slippery slope that eventually converted to pity. I think my thought was “I don’t know how I would cope if that happened to me.” And this person made some choices that I didn’t understand. I judged them. And that judgment I think is what made my empathy switch gears. Because really, they were fine. And they weren’t pitying themselves in any way. Simply sharing their story. I was able to see their strength once I realized that. And then I judged myself for pitying them at all. Oh judgements!

I’ve also been able to witness this happening in other people. I’ve seen someone try to become the hero of a situation in which doing so would only make things worse. There are times that someone needs to pull themselves up on their own in order to build that self-reliance muscle and all we can do is hold space and be supportive. And in a case like this, trying to swoop in to save the day takes away their opportunity for growth. And that same lesson will come back, perhaps in a slightly harsher situation if it goes unlearned.

I know those examples are a bit vague, and they probably would make more sense if I offered more content but they’re not my story to tell. Suffice it to say, I’ve observed this empathy vs pity dance from a few angles.

There are no clear-cut answers in this writing. I’m not really sure why this came up for me today because I was doing something entirely unrelated when I felt to write this down. It’s just a passing thought. Food for thought. And perhaps the beginnings of a conversation…

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