What’s the Word? Empathy


Sometimes I get confused about the meanings of empathy and sympathy. I possess neither naturally, so I want to understand the definitions to help my friends and family manage their expectations of me. Here is a cute little video, narrated by Dr. Brené Brown, which helped me a lot: 

I came away from this animation wondering how many people in my life have heard me say, “At least…” in my feeble attempt to comfort them in their struggles. Wanting to be the cheerleader and feeling uncomfortable in someone else’s pain, I fear I may whitewash an expression of pain and miss out on an opportunity to connect.

I’ve certainly been on the receiving end of lovely empathy. When we had a tragic loss in our family, people just showed up with food and began cleaning and hugging. I have one friend in particular whose eyes well up with tears when I tell her about something sad or difficult in my life. In the Old Testament of the Bible, poor Job had the best comfort from his friends when they just sat in silence with him, keeping him company but not trying to make sense of his circumstances.

Sometimes there are no words. And when there are words, the best ones can be simply, “I’m just so sorry”. And even if I can’t muster up true empathy – putting myself in the feelings of another person – I can at least do some damage control by saying or NOT saying certain things to encourage connection.

When have you experienced empathy? How do you reach out to connect with others in their pain?