Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Sympathy, Empathy, or Feeling Sorry?

Definition of Sympathy: harmony of or agreement in feeling, as between persons or on the part of one person with respect to another.
Definition of Empathy: the intellectual identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.

There is a vast difference between feeling sorry for a person and feeling sympathetic and/or empathetic toward them. Sympathy gives us the ability to express our like minded feelings no matter what the cause or condition. Empathy allows us to feel and innately understand through our words and actions what another is experiencing. Through both, we are afforded an opportunity to feel a connection to another fellow human being and what could be better then that? We might not know precisely how or what someone is feeling, nor have we  perhaps experienced the exact same circumstances, but we have an inexplicable need to say or do things that demonstrate our understanding.
Now, "feeling sorry" on the other hand is counter productive and makes vast assumptions about the other person. What I mean by this is, it could make you feel "better " or "superior" to the other person simply by thinking "wow, that must be awful, glad I am not going through that." A very real and very human response to others ups and downs in life. I think we have all felt this way at times, I know I have caught myself doing it.

No one really likes it when people feel sorry for them. I know I don't since there is nothing in this life I am not up to the challenge of changing or improving. Life may knock me down or throw me off kilter, but I try my absolute best to stay on course. My whole life has been about change and reinventing myself over and over and over again. Complacency is not for me and chances are it may not be for you too. I am a doer, and a seeker continuously looking for ways to better not just my life but that of others. My methods may not be so obvious, but they are nevertheless there.
Let me explain, back when I was going through my breast cancer options I was very expressive about my personal decisions as a means to both gain strength from the sharing of information, and to help other women realize that it could just as easily be them and not me. But more importantly to let others know that early detection works! My cancer diagnosis was caught so early it was not staged, and was very treatable. I chose a more radical approach (although more and more women are choosing to do this given the statistics on recurrence and personal history of breast cancer in families) then a breast conserving lumpectomy.

It entailed a good deal of courage and strength to make the decision I made as it would not be one I could reverse later on. I am a very determined and intelligent woman who makes choices based on both research and my own personal insight. Once a decision is made I follow through and try not to look back. Not always an easy thing to do, I can assure you, but second guessing choices is a dead end street that gets you no where quickly. You simply make a choice and you move forward. There is no right or wrong choice, there is simply your ability to decide a plan of action that feels right to you and only to you. We can take into consideration the thoughts of others but ultimately in order to grow as a person we need to make that decision for ourselves. To do anyhting less  defeats our purpose and might make us second guess our actions for the rest of our lives. Not a very useful process.

Some people felt empathetic toward my choice as they too had been there themselves or with family members, some people were sympathetic knowing how tough a process it was but understanding my need to take control of my life. But then there were those that just plain felt sorry for me and those were the hard. Those were the people who kept asking "are you OK?" and "is everything all right?" almost daily or when ever I encountered them. I saw in their eyes a lot of fear and pity, and a total inability to relate to me as a person and not a disease.

For me personally, writing about my life's experiences in so open a format is my way of saying we all feel pain, we all feel joy, and we feel what ever we need to feel. Our life is so enriched when we discover that we are all more alike then we think. It is not about wanting others to feel sorry for us. In this life it is about recognizing that we all have "pain" of some sort be it physical, psychologial or spiritual in nature and we all want the same thing: to live in a realtively peaceful way free from as many of the painful realities of life as possible.

So, the next time you feel a reaction toward someone who has shared with you something that is effecting their lives, stop and ask yourself before you speak  "am I feeling sorry for this person or am I feeling a sense of empathy and/or sympathy?" And chose your words with care. Sometimes saying nothing is the greatest gift we can give someone. Just knowing you are there in any capacity for a person is simply enough for many to know and appreciate.

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