“Empathy fuels connection. Sympathy drives disconnection.” (Brene Brown)
Many of us have seen this short from Brene Brown. Many of us practically screamed at our monitors “YES! This has happened to me!”
Long, slow exhale… we are not alone.
And yet often we still persist in sympathetic responses rather than empathic responses. Choosing empathy is a difficult road, and sympathy feels so very natural. We want our friends and family to learn humility and gratitude, and what better time to make sure those lessons are drilled in than during times of vulnerability?
We’ve all done it.
Now that the major emergency phase of the Fort McMurray fires appears to be over (a giant growth in the fire yesterday has forced oil camps north of the town to evacuate), reality is beginning to truly set in for evacuees; tempers of volunteers are frayed; and exhaustion and loss are bubbling up to the surface easily and hotly.
- “Be grateful for what you have! At least your house didn’t burn down like the poor people in Fort Mac!”
- “At least you have a house. Look at all those poor evacuees!”
- “At least you have a home to go back to. Some people have lost everything.”
- “The majority of the community’s buildings didn’t burn. Be grateful!”
- “Now you’ve learned what it means to be humble, grateful, in awe, or “—-” (insert whatever noble trait we believe others ought to be exhibiting at this precise second)”
“Rarely, if ever, does an empathic response begin with ‘at least’.” (Brene Brown)
These are all sympathetic responses to other people’s grief and loss that give us something to say, but actually end up doing more harm than good. Can you name a time when someone responded to your loss and grief with an “at least” statement, and you remember feeling empowered about it?
But I can name times I’ve given an “at least” statement. How cringe-worthy.
Brene Brown cites Theresa Wiseman, saying there are four distinct traits of empathic responses:
- Staying out of judgment
- Recognizing emotion
- Communicating that emotion in others
Trauma, grief, and loss are all lived experiences. They affect all of us so differently from our very cores. Comparing and “should-ing” other people during this crazy season only sends the message:
“Your experiences and feelings about those experiences do not matter. Be silent.”
Empathy is by far the harder choice to make because we are called to lay down our preconceived ideas about how other people ought to be acting, thinking and feeling. We step into their skin, see through their eyes, and walk in our shoes. By doing so we actually open ourselves up to having our worldviews changed.
Our words hold power.
When we choose to silver-line or “at least” someone, we choose to demean the other person’s experiences. When we choose to be vulnerable and walk in the other person’s shoes, entirely new perspectives open up to us. Will we thoroughly and perfectly understand the other person’s experiences or feelings flowing from those experiences?
But we learn how we can be better helpers and friends. We all know words and actions that have been both helpful and unhelpful during our times of sorrow. Choosing to be present in the sorrow of others will nurture a deep-seeded compassion in ourselves, and can serve to create safer space for the other person to be real, to cry, to be angry, to be joyful, to be grateful, to be confused, to be guilty, to be… anything that person is feeling during this season.
If sympathy truly drives disconnection and empathy paves roads of connection, we need to choose empathy as best we can. It is hard enough in our society for people struggling with life circumstances to open up, we need to stop empowering our culture of silent strength. Fueled with pithy sayings and words that make us feel better in the presence of someone else’s pain, we prop up a reality that keeps all of us silent about our pain.
A homeowner from Fort McMurray may have lost everything. House, car, pets, business — EVERYTHING. She might weep over the loss of it, grieve it, and yet have the capacity to move on using internal resiliency and external supports in a shorter period of time than another person. A senior in Lac La Biche who has been volunteering to help evacuees may hear the stories of folks driving through firestorms, of kids losing their pets, and may be the shoulder to cry on, but hasn’t actually been in the middle of the devastation.
Then perhaps nightmares of forest fires begin; appetite goes up and down for no apparent reason; and crying stops and starts randomly. The out-of-his-ordinary responses go on for days, and then weeks. Perhaps months.
But the senior citizen is criticized because he wasn’t actually in Fort McMurray. He didn’t actually lose anything in the fire. Who does he think he is, comparing himself to an evacuee!
This is sympathy talking.
It’s whole basis lies in comparison (pun intended).
Just because the senior and the homeowner have had different kinds of traumas, it does not mean either reaction is better or worse than the other. Empathy recognizes the vicious nature of vicarious trauma and grief and loss; and further recognizes that the time to be quietly present with each person is now. Both need empathic responses, and both need those empathic responses to be tailored to their needs, circumstances, and personalities.
For all of you who have lost so much during the past few weeks, or who can’t seem to control what your bodies are doing in the face of so much terror and grief, or who need to hear someone say “You’re not alone”, this is for you:
You are not alone.