The Sympathy Trap
Are you concerned that your caring about the complex problems of others is getting you down? Do you wish you could shut off the worry valve?
When you can’t stomach hearing about another insurmountable problem, do you feel judgmental and irritated or helpless and hopeless?
You might be caught in the sympathy trap.
It’s easy to get sympathy and empathy confused. There is a vast difference between sympathy and the skill of empathy. Here are some examples to illustrate the difference.
Imagine you are walking down the street and just ahead you hear someone yelling: “Help!” You look around and discover that the voice is coming from a deep hole in the ground. Someone has fallen in and is trapped.
It’s a deep hole and there doesn’t seem to be any way out. The person in trouble is scared and frantic. It is clear that he can’t get out himself. You want to help. You step back, take a deep breath and jump in. Now you are both ensnared and stuck. That is sympathy.
Let’s take our example a step further. Now there are two of you in the hole. The person grabs on to you and thanks you for being willing to help. You put your heads together and with a lot of energy and effort, you both climb out of the hole.
The benefit of responding with sympathy, in this case, is that you get recognition and a feeling of accomplishment. The price is that your own life plans are stopped because you became overly enmeshed in someone else’s drama.
Here is possibility No. 2: There are two of you in the hole. The other person grabs on to you, smashes you against the wall and uses you as a human ladder. They free themselves and walk away. You are stuck and are now the one with the problem. In this case, you’ve paid a big price for mixing up sympathy and the skill of empathy.
Scene 3: You realize a person is stuck in a deep hole. You quickly run as fast and as far as you can. This isn’t empathy or sympathy. This is being numb to others’ pain, detached, and staying uninvolved at all costs, probably caused by past leaps of sympathy that didn’t turn out well.
So, what is empathy? How can we use empathy to assist others without harming ourselves?
Scene 4: You approach the hole. You see the situation and understand the seriousness of it. You have genuine concern. You assure the person that you will help to support them in getting out safely. You direct them on how to get out, if you have the skill. If that isn’t enough, you get help. Once the person is safely out of danger, you continue on your way.
That is responding with empathy. We are using physical safety and security in this example.
Empathy is putting us in another’s shoes and than looking from their point of view, attempting to approximate what they are thinking and feeling, without sinking into pity or judgments.
Empathy requires a strong desire to understand others thoughts, feelings, needs and values. Therefore, we must first know enough about our own values, beliefs, thoughts and feelings to have a basic sense of safety and security within ourselves. When we accept ourselves, we can extend acceptance to others. When we are personally solid, we can hear the whole message of others, even if and especially when, we disagree with their opinions or beliefs.
The skill of empathy is built on a platform of kindness, acceptance, and respect for the individuality of others. From that base, we can begin the process of non-defensively hearing, understanding, and being both discerning and involved in supporting and assisting each other.
Susan is the author of “Beyond Intellect” and teaches seminars locally on how to unleash the power of your intuition. www.susanvelasquez.com.