Heartfelt: Showing True Compassion
Happy February! Valentine's may only be a day, but we tend to associate the month of February with themes of love and hearts. For that reason, I want to kick off a "Heartfelt" series! During the month of February, each post will center around topics of love. But, of course, not all love is romantic. I hope you can take something away that will help you connect better with your loved ones; whether they be a Valentine, Galentine, or Palentine!
What's the most effective way to be in connection with and in service to someone who is struggling, without taking on their issues as our own?
This is the initial question posed by Brene Brown within her book "Atlas of the Heart". Within the clinical practice community, there is no doubt that the role of compassion and empathy plays a huge role in how we connect with others.
Maybe it's because I studied English and literature in school, but I agree with Brown when she states that "language matters". When we get on the topic of Compassion, we also open the door to phrases such as Empathy, Sympathy, and Pity. And it is essential that we learn the difference between all of them. Brown describes Compassion as a daily practice, while Empathy is a skill set that serves as a powerful tool of Compassion. Let's compare Webster's dictionary definition of "Compassion" vs. Brown's.
According to Webster, Compassion is a "sympathetic consciousness of other's distress together with a desire to alleviate it"
For Brown and her many years of research, she describes Compassion as "the daily practice of recognizing and accepting our shared humanity so that we treat ourselves and others with loving-kindness, and we take action in the fact of suffering".
To put it plainly, when we express Compassion we are expressing that no one is immune to pain, suffering, or hardship. Because it is a practice based on shared humanity, the overall attitude we should have is that we meet people where they are without looking down on them or expressing Pity.
Pity vs. Compassion
Brown describes Pity as the "near enemy" of compassion. When something is a "near enemy", it is similar to the desired state but actually misses the mark. Basically, expressing Pity towards someone puts us in the dynamic of "the healer" and "the wounded". But Compassion is supposed to be a relationship between equals.
They may seem similar, but they have completely different outcomes when we express them to someone. Pity says "I feel so sorry for you. I feel so sorry for people like you". This idea creates a point of separation between the person who is going through hardship and the person who is trying to comfort/aid them. This description definitely made me take a step back and think about times when I may have thought I was showing empathy and compassion, but really I was showing pity. It made me think about the last time I felt like someone was pitying me and it's an awful feeling. When someone pities us, we find ourselves enveloped in a cloak of Shame.
Whether we realize it or not, expressing Pity towards someone paints the idea that they are inferior. Brown describes it as a self-focused reaction that maintains emotional distance, and it doesn't include providing help. Pity simply acknowledges the other person's suffering; it does not allow us to connect and share their suffering.
I'm sure people will read that and say: "Well I don't want to share in their suffering! Why would I drain myself like that?" And that is true, you don't want to literally share the suffering. What they're describing is Despair, which is described as another enemy of Compassion. Despair occurs when we immerse ourselves in the suffering of others to point of mental and emotional agony.
Empathy as a Tool
As stated before, Empathy is a tool of compassion and an emotional skill set. When we are able to be present in someone's pain without offering shame and pity, we are expressing Empathy and becoming Compassionate. Empathy is a combination of recognizing/understanding another person's emotions, as well as one's emotional attunement with another person's experience.
We have all likely heard the phrase "walk a mile in their shoes" when it comes to understanding someone different from us. However, Brown dispels the idea that this is all empathy is.
Rather than walking in your shoes, I need to learn how to listen to the story you tell about what it's like in your shoes and believe you even when it doesn't match my experiences
I find this more relevant than ever, particularly as a Black American woman. The U.S. is no stranger to civil unrest and for the past few years, racial tensions have been at an all-time high. While racism is very much a systemic issue, a lot of the day-to-day stress can be attributed to people being extremely unempathetic toward the Black Experience. Not only are people refusing to see things from our perspective, but they are resistant to our stories and invalidate our experiences because they don't match their own.
Empathy says: I may not have lived your experience, but I hear your story and know it to be valid. Your experience doesn't match mine, but it doesn't make me inherently right and you inherently wrong. Truthfully, we're not going to be able to walk in everyone's shoes. A White man will never fully grasp what my life is like as a Black woman. But he can make the effort to listen to and believe my story. In fact, trying too hard to put ourselves in someone's shoes can have adverse effects. We can either become overwhelmed with our own negative emotions or simply just choose not to believe that person.
Going back to the idea that language matters, it's important to note that Empathy and Sympathy are not at all the same thing. Brown describes Sympathy and Pity as first cousins. Rather than creating connection, they make room for shame and judgment. Sympathy removes itself and created distance from the other person: "Oh, I feel so bad for you! From way over here! Not over there where all that misery and nonsense happens!"
Sympathy, in a nutshell, feels superficial and disingenuous. It doesn't dare cross into the "me too" of Empathy; instead, it says "not me".
Using myself as an example, last month I got the chance to read Red Lip Theology by Candice Benbow. In the text, Benbow delves into her experience growing up in the church, her journey in theological studies, her relationship with her late mother (and absent father), and how they all tie into her belief system today. I won't put in any spoilers, but long story short: Benbow described a deeply personal and painful experience and I....did not express Empathy at all. I found myself thinking things like:
"Wow, that was stupid...I don't understand how someone so smart could do something like that....of course, things blew up in her face, what did she expect?"
And immediately, I snatched myself up from my thoughts. I was expressing some Pity, a little bit of Sympathy, and a ton of Shame. Mind you, I literally just read 'Atlas of the Heart' maybe a week prior to reading Benbow's book. I'd like to think that moment I caught myself was God getting me all the way together. For one thing, vulnerability and transparency are already tough. But to be vulnerable and transparent with thousands of readers? Very tough! Who am I to swoop in and mentally wag a finger at someone who I believe should "know better"? Just because I didn't say anything out loud doesn't mean that my line of thinking wasn't deeply flawed and problematic. It was just plain mean and nasty. In that brief moment, I expressed Pity ("That poor woman"), Sympathy ("That sucks but that also could never be me"), and Judgement ("She knows better, what is wrong with her?")
I obviously didn't have the capacity to relate to her experience, but luckily Empathy isn't about relating to an experience. It's connecting to what someone is feeling about an experience.
A Daily Practice
As you can see from my personal example, Compassion and Empathy are daily practices. This means that we will absolutely slip up and fall into some crappy thinking and habits. Even so, we are still able to hold ourselves accountable when we know what type of thinking to look out for. In the text, Brown mentions Theresa Wiseman's "Attributes of Empathy" and they are as follows:
Stay out of Judgement - LISTEN and don't put a value on it.
Recognize Emotion - check in and clarify what you are hearing; ask questions.
Communicate understanding over the emotion - it can be as simple as 'That's hard. I get that'.
*Bonus* Practice mindfulness - not the idea of pushing away emotion, but feeling it and moving through it.
We can only respond empathetically to others when we are willing to be present in someone's pain (not distant from it or above it).
I hope you enjoyed the first installment of the Heartfelt Series!