Topic Tuesdays: Advice

Let’s Talk About Empathy & Sympathy.

Dear, guys – welcome back to Letters From Liz!

New month, new beginnings, new adventures, new lessons, and new experiences to grow from. Every month for me is truly a journey, and for the 9 months of 2019 we went through, it’s been a long, hard journey.

I wanted to talk about this idea that I feel many of us misinterpret or misuse when talking about desires, personality traits, and resolving conflicts with people. We’ve all heard of sympathy; we can hear other people and their stories and understand where they are coming from, and because we understand, we can respect others for sharing their emotions and feelings to the public. Being sympathetic is a good trait to have; people trust other people who are willing to hear them out and understand their feelings and emotions about a specific situation. Those closest to you are trusting of you enough to allow them to express their feelings and emotions without any judgment, but it also allows the person receiving and listening to still keep their distance emotionally for their own personal sake.

So, why would people rather have someone to talk to who is empathetic than sympathetic?

Well, let’s define what empathy truly means. Empathy, in its most simple form, is when the person listening to the person who is expressing their feelings and emotions not only understands how that person feels, but they also feel how that person is feeling. In other words, someone who is empathetic knows how it feels to be in similar shoes of the person who is expressing their emotions and feelings. Sounds good, right? Wouldn’t it be great to have a friend or two in life who are willing to feel the way that you feel about something to the same degree? Wouldn’t it be right if the person you’re talking to also feels the way you feel in certain situations? Wouldn’t empathy be the great trait to have in friendships or relationships because as humans, all we want for the people we care for the most is to feel how we feel about certain scenarios and situations?

On paper, it sounds like a better trait. In practice, not so much.

For a while, I thought I was one of the special ones and thought I was empathetic more than sympathetic. I’m always taking what people tell me in confidence to heart, whether it’s a negative or positive situation. I thought I was the type of person that you could come to and talk about feelings and emotions because I knew how to respond to them and how to handle people in their most vulnerable state. Especially when it came to mental health, I thought I knew that because I go through mental health issues myself, it automatically enrolls me into the Empathy Club.

I believe I showcase empathy in certain situations, but I’m not an empathetic person.

Maybe I haven’t figured out the balance of being empathetic and still keeping my inner core strength, but in the years I’ve done experienced empathy-focused conversations and discussions, I do not have that power yet to separate myself from those said scenarios. In other words, every time I allowed myself to feel someone else’s emotions and feelings, it negatively impacted me and my mental health.

Empathy is truly a blessing and a curse; it’s great to be the person who can feel the emotions others are going through, but it also takes a toll on your own personal being, and from experience, it becomes this toxic cycle of needing empathy from other people when in hindsight, I believe no one can ever fully be empathetic.

Well, I can only speak for myself. 

It doesn’t mean that I’m this cold-hearted bitch that you can’t talk to without making you feel like shit; I do believe I’m a very sympathetic person. I’ve always been sympathetic and I’ve always understood (if not, then I tried to understand) where another person is coming from and where their headspace is at. I try my hardest not to judge people and allow them to come as they come because I know that’s how I want to be treated in return. I can be sympathetic and understanding of one’s feelings and emotions, but for my own personal mental health reasons, I can’t allow myself to feel, nor will I ever fully feel how someone else is feeling.

I mean, how can you possibly feel what another person is feeling? I’m not talking about intimate relationships either, but the everyday relationships you have with your family, friends, co-workers, strangers, etc? You don’t know how it feels to live in the life of those in your life. You don’t know the type of struggles they go through, what they have to deal with on a day-to-day- basis, nor why they act the way they act. You simply don’t know, all you can do is understand. 

If I learned anything within this year, it’s the fact that I won’t ever feel the same way a person feels. I may know how it feels, I may understand how it feels through experiences in life, but I will never feel what other people are feeling. People’s triggers, breaking points, breaking good/bad news will always be different for every individual, hence the way they act or feel about it is unique to them.

But maybe I’m just being too logical about this. 

Maybe there is a way where you can feel another person’s feelings and emotions without losing yourself in the process. Maybe you can understand what caused a person to feel the way they do, and experience it yourself internally or something. Maybe there are ways where you could be aware enough to the point whenever you approach someone with your own emotions and feelings, you ask in advance if they can handle you at this given moment.

Maybe empathy is something you have when you’re confident enough with yourself. Maybe being an empathetic person isn’t my alignment because I’m on this “good selfish” path where I’m finally prioritizing myself. Maybe being sympathetic is all I can offer to people at the moment, not because I’m self-centered, but because I still care about people and the way they feel; however, at the end of the day, the way I feel and my mental state of mind comes first.

Being sympathetic isn’t a bad thing, y’ know! Of course, there will be people disguising themselves as sympathetic people because it’s the right thing to try to understand where a person’s feelings and emotions are coming from. People vent to one another in hopes that the other person understands them and, if asked, suggest some advice to them!

Emotionally keeping your distance from people isn’t always a bad thing. Yeah, it sounds like it’s bad, but it doesn’t have to be. Keeping your distance when someone is expressing their feelings and emotions towards you allows you to see the situation through an unbiased lens. If you have a friend who’s telling you she slashed her ex-boyfriend’s tires after looking through his DMs, you gotta let her know that all that shit was unnecessary and now she has a bigger problem in her hands. You can understand why she did it, but it doesn’t mean that what she did was right. In another scenario, if you have a friend who opens up to you about domestic violence in their household, you still can have the distance away from the situation to be there for that friend. You can understand the pain she’s going through without allowing your feelings and emotions to get in the way of the situation.

So, whether you are an empathetic person or a sympathetic one, those are two good traits to have at least one of. You become a resource for the people in your life that might have no one else to discuss things with. You’re reliable, trustworthy, and kind enough to understand or feel what others are telling you in confidence. For years, I’ve been the person that my friends came to whenever they had hardships in their lives, and whether or not I’ve personally gone through similar situations (yeah, I’m talking about middle school Liz who gave out relationship advice with NO relationship experience), I’ve listened and helped out in the best way I could.

There isn’t no wrong or right way to be there for the people you care about, as long as you’re doing what’s right for you and for those who you care for. Empathy, sympathy, whatever works best for you, you are still being a helpful friend to others.

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