Opinion: Wisdom Workout

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The Sympathy Trap

Susan Velasquez

By Susan McNeal Velasquez

Do you care too much about your loved one’s problems? If so, you might be caught in the sympathy trap. There is a vast difference between sympathy and the skill of empathy. It is easy to get sympathy and empathy confused. Here is an example to help illustrate the difference.  

Imagine you are walking down the street and off to your right, and just a bit ahead, you hear someone yelling: “Help!” You look around and discover the voice is coming from a deep hole in the ground. Someone has fallen in and is trapped. 

You move to the edge and look down. It is a very deep hole, and this person is in trouble and frantic. It is clear that they can’t get out without help. You step back, take a deep breath and jump in. That is sympathy.

Most of us, at some time in our lives, have held our breath and jumped into someone’s life trauma to help, and it turned out badly. As a result, we might be cautious about getting deeply involved with others. We may blame our caring nature for getting us in trouble rather than realizing we simply lacked understanding about the difference between empathy and sympathy.

 Let’s take our example further, back to the disaster site. There are now two of you in the hole. The person thanks you profusely. You put your heads together and, with great effort, you both climb out of the hole.         

You are covered with dirt. Your clothes are ripped. You have a few scrapes and bruises. You are both free again. You have a new buddy and another adventure under your belt. Your plans and commitments are derailed for the day. You are off track, and you’ve had an experience that ultimately turned out well.

In this case, the benefit of responding with sympathy is that you get to be a hero. You get recognition. You get some unplanned excitement and a feeling of deep camaraderie. The price is that your life plans are on hold because you become entangled in someone else’s drama.

Here is possibility #2. There are two of you in the hole. The other person grabs onto you, smashes you against the wall and uses you as a human ladder. They free themselves and walk away. They originally had the problem, and now you do. In this case, you have just paid a big price for mixing up sympathy and the skill of empathy.

Scenario #3. You move towards the edge and realize a person is stuck down in this deep hole. You look around and see there is no one but you. You run away as fast as you can because you fear you will get blamed or hurt in some other way. This is neither empathy or sympathy. This is being numb to others’ pain, detached and staying uninvolved at all costs. 

So, what is empathy? How can we use empathy to assist others without harming ourselves? In this example, we are talking about physical safety and security. To be empathetic in the emotional and mental realms is more complex. Empathy is feeling with another without sinking into pity or judgments. Empathy is putting ourselves in another’s shoes and attempting to approximate what they might be thinking and feeling. 

 In order to be empathetic, we must have a strong desire to understand others’ thoughts, feelings, needs, desires and values. Therefore, we must first know enough about our values, beliefs, thoughts and feelings to have a basic sense of safety and security.  

The more solid and secure we are, the more self-accepting we become. When we accept ourselves, we can extend acceptance to others through an attitude of curiosity and interest in learning how they see the world. 

The only way to hear and understand the whole message of another is by truly valuing and respecting their unique individuality. When we respect that we all have the capacity to grow, to progress and to develop, we can then let go of trying to fix, advise and change those we love.

Susan is a local author. She has been writing and facilitating personal development seminars for over three decades. beyondintellect.com.

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