The Weiler Psi

Parapsychology Journalism: The People, The Theory, The Science, The Skeptics

Compassion, Empathy and Sympathy: Navigating Rough Waters


Note to readers: I have become an Area Governor in Toastmasters recently and this has required a lot of my attention. Therefore, this post is quite late.

This post was my wife’s suggestion. As much as I hate taking suggestions from her, she’s right on this one. It’s a good topic. One of the more challenging things I had to learn over the years was how to react to other people and their problems. I could shut people out, but that didn’t feel very good. It allows me to feel nothing and that wasn’t going to work very well over the long haul. I could sympathize, but that left me feeling like crap because I felt awful for people and their problems and found myself worrying with them. Those seemed to be my only choices. Those were rough waters to navigate.

To deal with this, I realized that I needed to be able to feel . . . something without becoming entangled in the lives of others. I did learn to do this and that is what I am sharing today. It is not just semantics, there is a vocabulary and a way of thinking that goes with it.

First thing that I want to share is that sympathy and empathy are not the same thing. Sympathy is about feeling sorry for people and wanting to help them with their problems. When we are in this mode of thinking, we offer suggestions, try to help and worry for them. It is full of phrases like: “Oh, what a shame.” “That’s too bad.” “That’s awful.” Empathy on the other hand, is about understanding the difficulties and pain that someone is going through, without getting involved. It has more neutral phrases like: “That can be a very challenging problem or situation.” “That seems to be very painful.” “You seem to be struggling with it.” You’re acknowledging other people’s problems without owning them.

That difference is very important for a psychic person because we have a tendency to take on the problems of the world as our own. It is important not to do this because we are less likely to want to help them. And helping other people is what makes us feel good about ourselves. To put this another way: If we want to feel good about ourselves and help people, then we have to learn how to have empathy without sympathy. We must have compassion for others, but not live their problems with them.

The trick is in how we perceive it and this starts with the vocabulary of empathy. We must view the pain of other as observers, not participants. The neutral phrases I have described above show how that works. You tell people how their pain or problems appear to you. It is important to put it in just this way because it also avoids the trap of telling people what emotions they are feeling and we don’t end up defining them. Words can be powerful and we have to take some care in how we use them. By using neutral observation phrases compassionately, we can be convey our support. “This sounds like it is very difficult for you” for example, is a phrase that acknowledges an issue, invites sharing and does not involve us feeling it all with them.

While it sounds cold to avoid feeling people’s pain with them, it is not. It frees us to take a step back and evaluate whether we our involvement can help or hinder this person. There are problems after all, where nothing can be done, or the problem is simply so large that it is beyond our capacity to get involved. It is part of our duty on earth to help people, but we have to pick and choose where and when we do this and how much. For example, my wife and I have a close relative who is a walking financial disaster. She is unable to work anymore and we pay most of her rent so that she doesn’t end up on the streets. We have helped rehabilitate some cats that were traumatized by who-knows-what and we have helped out in non profit organizations. We give a lot of our time and effort to help others.

But we don’t do everything for everybody. There are a lot of cats we don’t help. There are relatives we don’t help and friends we don’t help. It’s simple. We can’t do it all; we have to take care of ourselves first. Sometimes there is no easy way to decide which situation to help out in and it’s basically chance. Other times it is very clear cut. Our time and effort and financial resources are not unlimited. We have to pick our battles.

If we were sympathizing, instead of empathizing, we would be doing a lot less for people and animals because of the emotional toll it would be taking on us. But because we are choosing our battles and keeping some emotional distance, we have been able to accomplish a lot. It brings a lot of joy into our lives that way.

That’s why I feel that it is important to make this distinction; so that we can be the people that we really want to be without becoming a basket case.

If anyone has any questions about this article, please leave me a comment and I will be happy to respond with clarifications or whatever is required.

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