Empathy: How We Give It Matters
Sympathy vs. Empathy
1. feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else's misfortune
2. understanding between people; common feeling
the ability to understand and share the feelings of another
These definitions are according to Google, but there are differences between the two. They are often used interchangeably as synonyms, and in some cases can even be synonyms, but in this hub I am referring to empathy only.
Both terms involve understanding the feelings of another, but to put it the way my cousin describes it: sympathy is more cognitive and empathy is more emotional. While we can cognitively understand another's feelings, it seems that the reaction with sympathy is to feel a deep sense of pity or sorrow for another's situation itself rather than to actually feel what the other is feeling.
Sympathy is generally associated with negative feelings, whereas empathy can include joyous moments. For my purposes here, though, I am referring to the negative emotions brought on by empathizing with someone.
Empathy as defined by Merriam-Webster
1: the imaginative projection of a subjective state into an object so that the object appears to be infused with it
2: the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another or either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner; also: the capacity for this
Strength or Weakness?
Occasionally people will tell me that I would make a good counselor. I confess that I have considered that as a career choice many times, too, but then again, I also have thought that I would make a terrible counselor. Why? Because I have a knack for not completely taking on the negative emotions of another to a degree that weighs me down beyond my ability to cope. I realize that I cannot change anything by internalizing another's struggle or intense feelings as my own. It is sometimes hard enough to deal with my own negative emotions when they become intense, to remember to let them go sooner rather than later. I know that it is unhealthy to hang onto these emotions, yet it is when these feelings are most intense that I really desire the empathy of someone close.
In trying to understand these things about myself, I have come to realize that the way I empathize is actually a strength rather than a weakness. It does not mean that I care any less for a person or their feelings and struggles. It does not even mean that I do not feel the pain or sadness. It does, however, mean that I am more effective as someone that does care deeply and especially as the one empathizing. I've simply had to learn how to channel those emotions in much the same way I channel my own when they start to become overwhelming.
Empathizing Is Personal
Giving empathy is a very personal thing, perhaps even as personal as the thoughts, feelings, and experiences are to the one experiencing them first-hand. The thing is, though, that empathy is not as objective as it may seem. In fact, like most other things involved in relating to other people, it is mostly subjective in nature. We assume and we imagine what another person must be feeling according to how we might react or feel in the same situation, especially if we have been in similar situations and can easily recall our own feelings about them. We feel these things deeply, but our own feelings may be more or less intense than another's. They may not even be entirely accurate. Still, empathy is important and profound, which is why it is important to give it and receive it, but to do so without losing oneself in giving or causing another to feel burdened when receiving it.
When I wrote the poem "I Shall Do the Same" and published it as a hub I took for granted that others empathize the way that I do. But, that is simply not the case, and I guess I knew that because I wrote it after feeling as if I had become a burden to someone trying to offer empathy to me. However, when I say someone may have empathy for me, I mean in a way that equates more to strong feelings of love and/or compassion, not carrying around my perceived negative emotions for too long. I love deeply and I empathize deeply as well, but I learned to replace the tears and fear or whatever the negative emotions are with feelings more akin to deep compassion that, at times, can be quite overwhelming, too. However, these are emotions much less harmful to me and much more useful to another. I can still feel the pain of another, but have to channel that pain into something more effective. Perhaps the more effective thing to do is just to willingly accept that I can do nothing but love and tolerate not being able to do anything more.
The Way We Empathize Matters
It is hard to watch a loved one go through a storm, knowing it is not our place to control the situation even if we can. However, allowing the empathetic response to remain as internalized negative feelings is extremely impairing. It is impairing to the one empathizing as well as to the one being empathized with.
The person empathizing in this way can easily become overwhelmed with frustration and helplessness over not being able to make things better. In such instances, it is only natural to retreat for awhile or to pull way completely. One cannot blame a person for pulling away, but that is hard on the person receiving empathy, too. Knowing that someone else is experiencing such despair as a result of seeking empathy from that person is difficult. It is often even more painful than whatever the empathy is for, at least in my experience.
How is it helpful to feel like an emotionally draining leech? Or to lose a loved one over seeking comfort? Obviously, it is not in the least bit helpful. Some will take advantage of empathizers, not caring what they may be experiencing, but for those that do care, it only makes a person feel worse despite feeling cared for. It also makes a person painfully aware that opening up too much or too often may push someone away. So how does one empathize without becoming overwhelmed?
The Difference Between Feelings and Emotions
1. an emotional state or reaction
2. a belief, especially a vague or irrational one
a natural instinctive state of mind deriving from one's circumstances, mood, or relationships with others.
Someone recently told me that people do not make us feel anything; that we allow ourselves to experience those feelings. My gut reaction to that concept is to somewhat disagree with that statement, yet I think there is also much truth in it. While sometimes emotions just are what they are in the moment without explanation, it is also possible to control the way a person responds to a person or situation, including the feelings involved.
Hence, the definition of the two words listed above. They are also often used as synonyms, yet also have a subtle distinction between the two. Emotions are instinctive and may not always be controlled right away no matter how irrational they may seem. In order to change an unwanted emotional response, one must first recognize the triggers that initiate it. Feelings are the emotions we choose to focus on and they can be as intense as we allow them to be. We can and do choose them if we know how. Choosing to be happy, for instance, instead of dwelling in negative emotions past their usefulness. Choosing to let go. Or choosing to empathize. We can choose how much to feel and for how long.
If one chooses to empathize with another person, especially if the situation warrants a deeper kind of empathy, why not choose how long and when to feel those feelings related to another and why not choose to focus more on the feelings of love and compassion that come with empathizing rather than the emotions that are so heavy and hard to carry? Tears shed out of love and compassion are just as appreciated, maybe even more so. They are borne of first feeling the pain just as tears help a person to heal their own pain.
There is great value in people being able to empathize with one another, but be careful not to let it become a burden too much to carry. If empathy is meant to let someone else know they are not alone and to feel as if someone else knows and cares what is felt, then do so in a way that shares it without overwhelming either party. When an imbalance is formed, especially so that the weight feels to be more towards the empathizer, more weight is placed on both parties and the inter-empathy between two people is threatened. Perhaps even more than that can be lost.
Empathy is both a responsibility and a privilege not to be taken lightly and never to be taken for granted. Be aware of how you give it away. Being aware makes it easier to adjust if need be and to keep on exchanging empathy with those around us.