Do you sometimes want to rescue people and help them feel better? And when you do, is it the other person you are trying to ‘solve’ – or just yourself?
Lately I have been looking into the differences between empathy and sympathy, using as my guide, the Brené Brown book, ‘Dare to Lead’.
To be honest, I was dismayed at how often I use sympathy instead of empathy when I respond to events and people around me.
I have also discovered there is a profound difference between the two. Empathy builds connection and trust, enabling us to come together in the midst of our challenges and remember God is here in the midst. Sympathy, according to Brené Brown, gives advice and is judgement disguised as concern. We have forgotten that God is in charge and at work through us.
Basically, empathy is feeling with people, sympathy is feeling for people. This immediately reminded me of our Silent Unity mission: We pray with people not for people. We pray from the perspective of God here, now and always; not from the perspective that there is a dreadful problem that needs to be fixed!
Sometimes I am really clear about this – especially in Silent Unity and responding through prayer. However I have begun to recognise that in my home life and relationships, it can be very different.
Instead of replying to someone who is struggling with, I am here with you – tell me what you need, I may say something like, I understand, when really I don’t and cannot. We can never view the world through someone else’s experience and this misses the mark. The other person does not feel supported or heard but instead is dismissed. Neither of us feel connected to each other.
If they do something we don’t like or feel unhappy about, instead of connecting with the same message, I am here with you – tell me what you need, we may say instead, ‘I believe in you, you can get through this’, or even perhaps try to get them to change their minds and do what we want them to do as this makes us feel better! I have realised this, too, is missing the mark, especially if they are feeling really low, lost and unconnected to life and us.
As a previous rescuer and people pleaser, I am learning that it is not up to me to try and make anyone feel better – I can’t. It is a powerful lesson. Sympathy, ‘poor you!’ simply does not work. Empathy as, I am here with you, tell me what you need, enables us to connect and pray from the perspective of wholeness, wisdom, abundance, etc.
This looks like it will be an ongoing life practice for me, as my deep desire is to connect. To connect more deeply with God, I now remember to compassionately and lovingly check in with what I need and find a way to give it to myself, which lets God in. Now I can connect more deeply with those around me.
We cannot make people feel better – and this is certainly not what prayer is about. We can be present though, through the empowering act of asking and knowing that God is in the midst and is their guidance, wholeness and peace.
Phew! It’s such a relief to let go of trying to rescue and solve people’s lives! I really do feel free.