The Bucket or The Well – A Lesson In Sympathy Vs Empathy

I learned a hard lesson in my early years: not everyone is for me. Ouch!

It seems the popular belief is that all who encounter us in our hard times will understand our pain and anguish and be “in it” with us. They’ll join us in our blubbering and banter, and encourage our misery. Maybe it’s expectation. Maybe it’s what we learned to believe from loved ones who didn’t want to see us suffer. Or maybe, people just don’t know how to support us in our pain.

Whatever the case may be, I think most of us are very comfortable with sympathy, a form of enabling and empowering those negative emotions that we don’t want to feel, but seem to get us a lot of attention. I’ll be the first to admit, it feels right to expect those around me to FEEL what I feel and react the same way I react to whatever sparked those negative emotions. That’s what sympathy looks like. It sits with us in our anger, frustration, hurt, sadness…and feeds it. It empowers the very thing that put us in the emotional state we’re in. And then there’s not just me feeling anger, rejection, betrayal, etc., but two of us, and then maybe four or five. It goes on and on, like a disease spreading from person to person. Pretty soon, our emotional well is really packed with misery. But hey, misery loves company, right?

Here’s where the lesson came into play. I was beginning to notice that every time I reacted to a situation, with the expectation of someone else getting as riled up as I was…they did! And then the strangest thing happened…I began to not like the way they were acting. Pity: party of one? Oh geez! And then, Oh no! I realized I was portraying the very same behavior because I wanted that person to be in the same deep, dark well with me, and scream “somebody do something!”

Then, I encountered someone who didn’t coddle my emotions, but stuck out a hand and said, “I understand what you’re feeling, I’ve been there, but hey, let’s talk about it and let me help you!” In other words, they weren’t going to just sit in the dark with me. They heard me and saw me, and began to pull me up slowly, with love and support. And yes, tell me things I didn’t want to hear.

What is this thing? Empathy. It’s the rope to my bucket! This is where I began to understand the concept of sympathy vs empathy.

Wow! Talk about my belief system beginning to change! By expressing understanding and familiarity with my situation, instead of jumping in and cheering the pain, they began to help me with a perception shift. And, more importantly, I began to trust that this person was FOR ME! They didn’t bolster my victim mindset, or play the “one up” game. After all, everyone knows my dad can beat up your dad (that’s a joke).

It’s been a difficult thing to overcome. I, sometimes, still want someone to settle in with me and cry out from that deep well of pity, but I know better. I’ve experienced a different means of support and love. It’s made me more aware of how to better assist someone who may experience mental illness or emotional pain. I often ask individuals, what’s going to work better for you? Me, getting in that well with you, where it’s dark and cold and miserable, both of us stuck in the mess? Or do you want me to acknowledge your mess and give you a boost to a higher place? I’m not a rescuer. I don’t have a magic wand to extinguish flames of despair. What I do have are two ears that listen and a heart that desires to champion a person toward their best. I’ve cried with individuals (and I mean ugly cried!) I’ve been angered by the unjust events of their lives. I’ve whispered “it’s ok” when they’ve felt the shame and guilt of admitting past behaviors. I’ve given hugs and I’ve offered tissues. I’ve held hands and I’ve patted shoulders. In these moments, yes, I’m there with them, but I invite them to scoot over and let me in the bucket, not to sit and empower victimhood, but to pull them up into the light of trust and support and love.

– Jill E. Brown, LCDC-I at Touchstone Ranch Recovery Center.

* All information subject to change. Images may contain models. Individual results are not guaranteed and may vary.