Thursday, April 3, 2014

Sympathy vs. Empathy

I received hundreds of tweets/emails/messages after my last video, with about 99.9% of them being super lovely and supportive. The other 0.1% apparently thought they were being nice and supportive, but they weren't. So I thought it might be time to discuss the difference between sympathizing and empathizing.

If someone says they aren't ready to talk about something, that isn't really your cue to start speculating about what's going on. It's not time to ask that person questions or poke and prod for more info. If they felt comfortable giving more info, then they probably would have. Let's be real: most people love talking about themselves.

Several of the messages I got went pretty heavy on the speculating, and it put me in a difficult position. The speculations I received ranged from eating disorders all the way to transitioning my gender presentation. One person was so sure they knew what was going on, they declared it was "so obvious." (It obviously wasn't "so obvious," because they were wrong.) Another person sent about a dozen tweets saying he knew exactly what was going on, yet he never stated what exactly he knew.

Did he know? I'm not sure, and I honestly don't even want to know what he was speculating. There is nothing more terrifying to someone who isn't ready to talk about something than having someone else say they are 100% sure they know what's going on. That doesn't create a supportive or secure atmosphere. It just makes the person feel like he's being backed into a very tiny corner and that he's gonna have to defend himself to get out.

In one particularly thoughtful message that really stuck in my mind, the sender offered me sympathy, and then presented the difference between "empathizing" and "sympathizing." Empathizing with someone is understanding how they're feeling because you've been in the same situation, while sympathizing is simply acknowledging someone is going through something, and providing comfort or support.

But, like I said, most of the messages I received were filled with overwhelming amounts of good ol' fashioned sympathy, which I didn't even expect to get, so thank you for that. And I don't want it to seem like I'm focusing on the downers. Their hearts may have been in the right place, but I do think they need to reassess what they believe to be the process of supporting others.