Empathy is hard but also necessary

I’ve been thinking, and talking, quite a bit about empathy lately. Specifically, the difference between empathy and sympathy. According to Psychology Today’s website,

Empathy can be defined as a person’s ability to recognize and share the emotions of another person . . .. It involves, first, seeing someone else’s situation from his perspective, and, second, sharing his emotions, including, if any, his distress.

In contrast:

Sympathy (‘fellow feeling’, ‘community of feeling’) is a feeling of care and concern for someone, often someone close, accompanied by a wish to see him better off or happier.

* * *

However, sympathy, unlike empathy, does not involve a shared perspective or shared emotions, and while the facial expressions of sympathy do convey caring and concern, they do not convey shared distress.

Similarly, according to the grammarist.com:

When you understand and feel another’s feelings for yourself, you have empathy.

* * *

When you sympathize with someone, you have compassion for that person, but you don’t necessarily feel her feelings. For instance, if your feelings toward someone who is experiencing hardship are limited to sympathy, then you might have a sense of regret for that person’s difficulty but are not feeling her feelings as if they’re your own.

Up until now, my concern with these different emotional states has been self-centered. I have focused purely on my desire to have others empathize, rather than sympathize, with my situation (i.e. being diagnosed with late-onset bipolar after a year of unmitigated hell; having my trauma and newly diagnosed chronic illness lead me to step away from my successful career as an attorney; feeling like a failure for not being a working mom; feeling like a failure as a mother for not doing every little thing, with patience and kindness, but instead having days of hypomanic screaminess).

These are all significant, big-life-picture emotions that I would like the people closest to me to share. I want them to stand in my shoes, to the extent possible, and look at the world as I see it. To share in my fear and distress as if these were their own feelings about their own lives. And to love me, forgive me and speak with me from that place of shared experience.

Feeling sadness for me because of my current situation is not good enough. It is isolating and dismissive. It suggests that the upheaval I am experiencing is mine and mine alone to try to understand and deal with. The sympathetic person may cheer me on from the sidelines, but he remains removed from my struggle. There is no mutual effort to combat my emotional demons, because I am the only one who knows what they are.

In short, I would like my closest people to make an effort to empathize, rather than sympathize, with my situation. I would like them to learn as much as possible about my illness, to listen to me talk about my depression, my hypomania, my fears and my shame. And then I want them to try as hard as they can to put themselves in my shoes, to look at the world through my eyes using my mind; I want them to see and feel what it is like to be me. 

Then, and only then, can we have a meaningful conversation about how to go on.

Without detracting from anything above, I recognize that empathy cannot be a one-way street. I cannot demand empathy from people without haven empathy for them, without putting myself in their shoes when faced with my request.

I need to feel the difficulty and frustration of trying to share the experience of mental illness when such an experience is totally foreign; and when the person requesting empathy is unable to fully communicate her own experience.

I am often at a loss for words to explain what it feels like to walk around with my mind doing what it does. Frequently, there are not adequate words to communicate how mind-numbingly dark, hopeless and repetitive depression is. Nor are their words for the tortuous struggle between wanting to feel “normal” and do “normal” things and never being able to because your anxiety makes the world feel like a giant fist pressing down on your chest until you die. And the shame. There is so much shame in knowing that from the outside you appear to be an otherwise functional human who is choosing self-pity, to give up, to be a pessimist, to run away, to hide, to give in to fear rather than face it. And there is the shame of knowing these outside impressions are not true, yet sometimes believing them yourself.

Conveying all of these feelings in a coherent way to a person with no direct, or even indirect, experience with mental illness is extremely difficult, if not impossible. But if I can’t explain my experience, how can I expect another person to empathize with me? Such a request would likely feel like an unfair, impracticable ask.

And, if I can’t explain my experience of mental illness in a coherent way, being with me must feel incredibly frustrating. Looking at me from the outside, with none of the internal context, it likely feels like I am a determinedly negative person who fails to appreciate what a wonderful life she has, no longer believes in herself, is afraid of her own shadow and constantly wallows in her illness. None of those things are true, but I can understand how a person might have those feelings based on how I act sometimes.

Even if my experience with bipolar disorder could be adequately explained, I expect it would feel incredibly painful to have to share in my distress. No person wants to see someone they care about hurt, let alone experience that hurt with them. Trying to avoid this pain would probably be most people’s first reaction; I know it would be mine. 

But I also know, from past experience, that my first reaction would not be my final one; that I would do whatever painful work needed to be done so that I could share my friend or partners’s painful experience and emotions. That is what humans do for the people they care about.

I understand that people have varying degrees of empathy, and while the ability to empathize can be improved, such improvement is not an easy or fast process. Asking someone to fundamentally change the way they act in relation to other people’s negative emotions, is not a small request. Even so, I believe it is a reasonable one, something I have the right to ask for from those closest to me. 

In short, do not bring me a casserole. Instead, come sit with me, hold my hand, listen, ask questions, say you are proud of me, ask how you can help. Be there with me, not just physically but emotionally, too. I need you to be in this with me, no matter how hard that might be for you.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s