This is an excerpt from a Ted talk by Dr. Brené Brown that went viral a while back. It’s about the difference between empathy and sympathy, and how best to help our friends and family when they’re going through a hard time. And while I think there are a few good points to it, I also find that I mostly disagree with it on the whole. Some of my disagreements are just with the way she defines empathy and sympathy; others are real disagreements about the actions to take to help a friend in need.
First, here are my own working definitions of sympathy and empathy:
Sympathy: Feeling the pain of another without having the lived experience of that pain; feeling pain because someone you care about is in pain.
Empathy: Feeling the pain of another because you have the lived experience of that pain; knowing the suffering of another because you have suffered in that way as well.
For example: I can have sympathy for a woman giving birth. It sounds excruciatingly painful. But I’ve never given birth, and I don’t, in fact, know how she feels (and never will). But I can have empathy for someone grieving the loss of a sibling. That’s a pain I’ve come to know very well through my own experience. And unlike Dr. Brown, I don’t think empathy is superior to sympathy. In fact, my entire purpose in writing this post is to try to help clarify when to be sympathetic and when to be empathetic; more specifically, it’s about when not to try empathy, and the dangers in doing so at the wrong time and in the wrong situation.
I really think that what Dr. Brown describes as sympathy (the moose (what animal is that anyway?) in the cartoon) is actually just being insensitive and not truly caring about the other person’s problems. Putting a silver lining around someone else’s dark cloud is more about obscuring the cloud than helping it go away. The moose doesn’t care about the fox; the moose cares more about feeling like he did something than he does about his friend. Ultimately, telling others “at least…” is more about feeling good about yourself than really approaching and confronting the other person’s pain.
But real sympathy doesn’t look like that. Real sympathy says exactly what the “empathetic” bear says at the end of the cartoon: “I don’t even know what to say right now, I’m just so glad you told me.” Real sympathy is about acknowledging the difficulty of the other person’s situation, admitting your lack of lived experience in that regard, and walking with that other person through their personal darkness to try to find the light. It’s about striving to understand the other person’s situation, even if you yourself have never been there. It’s about taking their perspective, acknowledging the validity of their emotional state, and helping them to find a way forward.
What it is not about is saying, “I know how you feel. I’ve been there before.” This is empathy, and while it can be a valuable tool in helping others come to terms with their current struggle, it is also a dangerous one, and easy to misuse. If you have not been there before, then asserting that you have is not only unhelpful, but also demeaning and insensitive.
An example to help explain: I have never suffered from clinical depression. I don’t know what it’s like to wander through the fog of apathy, of nonfeeling, of noncaring that is real depression. I have read a lot about depression and other emotional disorders; it’s a bit of a hobby for me, given the prevalence of bipolar disorder in my immediate and extended family. I know intellectually what it is to be depressed. But I have never been depressed myself. So when a friend comes to me and talks about what they are going through, and from my reading and talking to people, it sounds like real, clinical depression, the last thing I should do is say, “I know how you feel. I’ve been there before.” Doing so denies the validity and seriousness of their situation. It denies that depression is an actual medical condition, an imbalance of chemicals in the brain, and instead says that it’s just a phase, just a thing all people go through (including me). In the worst cases, it can send the message that everyone goes through this, and that they are just having a harder time getting through it because they are weaker or less valuable.
In the same way, if a black friend comes to me struggling with being discriminated against, I cannot say, “I know how you feel.” I’ve never been there. I can (and should!) try to put myself in his shoes, to understand his perspective, but ultimately, I cannot know what it’s like. And to claim that I do minimizes the real presence of racial discrimination. I cannot tell a newly-transgender friend I know how they feel transitioning to a new gender identity, and to do so denies the real and difficult struggle to transition.
In short: If you haven’t been there before, don’t claim you have. To do so minimizes and devalues the emotions and crisis of the other person.
There is also a bigger issue here: The I in empathy and sympathy both. Even if you have been through what the other person is going through, it’s still not always a good idea to say, “I know how you feel.” The sentence itself starts with “I.” Same with sympathy: “I can’t imagine what you’re going through right now.” To say these things brings the focus of the conversation to yourself. It really should be obvious, but the focus of a conversation in which you’re trying to help a friend with their problems should be them, not you. It’s not about you. It’s not about whether or not you’ve been through it, whether or not you understand what they’re going through, or whether or not you know what to say. It’s about them.
A conversation in which you try to help someone overcome an emotional difficulty should be a) more listening than talking, and b) more questions than answers. Helping a friend find the answers they need by asking good questions is far more valuable than providing what you think are good answers. It’s much more valuable and helpful to ask, “What are some ways you cope when you find yourself in this emotional state?” than to say, “Here are some ways I cope when I find myself here.” Answers that people come to themselves are more meaningful than answers that you give them.
You can help others through examples from your own life. But they have to meet some pretty specific requirements in order to be more helpful than asking questions, listening, and helping someone find their own answers. In fact, I’ve made a flowchart to make it easier:
In short: If you’re going to use an example from your life, it has to be directly relevant, and you have to have already exhausted other options. If you use an example from your life, it has to be about them—not you.
There are two sentences in Brené Brown’s video that are powerful and important and true. The first: “You’re not alone.” The second: “The truth is, rarely can a response make something better. What makes something better is connection.”
The key to helping those you care about is helping them feel like they are not alone, that you care about them. The key is building connection. But pretending to know how they feel when, in fact, you don’t is not the way to form that connection. This sort of connection is built through careful listening, thoughtful questions, and a focus on them, not you. It’s formed by earnest attempts to understand their perspective, their struggles, and possible ways forward. In terms of Brené Brown’s “deep dark hole” imagery, the way to help isn’t always to climb into the hole and say that you’ve been there before. It’s to climb down into the hole, take your friend’s hand, and say, “I care about you. Let’s find that light switch together.”