Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Moving From Sympathy to Empathy

First off, let's define the difference between sympathy and empathy.  Sympathy is when your partner says, "I'm sorry you're hurting."  Empathy is when your partner says, "I know how hard it is to suffer pain."

Sympathy comes from an ability to see and acknowledge your partner's hardships and express compassion.  Empathy comes from knowing the hardships -- either because you have experienced them or can extrapolate from similar experiences -- and expressing, on a deeply personal level, to your partner, the emotions and challenges your "shared" hardships arouse.

The bond sympathy builds is a comfort.   The bond empathy builds is a refuge.

A few months ago my partner, Richard, had an outbreak of shingles.  And yes, he had not had the shingles vaccine.  It was terrible.  He described the nerve pain shingles produced as similar to what he imagined having six inch nails pounded into his chest and back would be like.  He suffered deep, penetrating, sharp pain for weeks, with little relief.  And he suffered all the consequences -- sleeplessness, fear, short-temperedness, impatience, irritability, distancing, and on and on.

As his symptoms faded, he reflected that while he had always had sympathy for my chronic pain condition, he now had empathy.  I cheered and I cried, because I did have empathy for what he went through, and wouldn't wish it on a mosquito.

I am not recommending that your partner be inflicted with whatever is causing you to suffer.  I don't wish well partners know physical pain; and I don't wish ill partners know the emotional and physical exhaustion of caregiving.

I do wish that we all took some time to go deep inside our own experiences and harvest the memories, and their emotional wrappers, that resonate with our partner's experiences.

If you have felt the confusion and fear of being lost, you may be able to resonate with your partner's experiences of being lost in the labyrinth of the medical system, seeking answers and only finding more informational breadcrumbs.  If you have pushed yourself beyond endurance and know the experience of physical depletion and emotional weariness, then you can resonate with your partner's experience of ceaseless caregiving without the ability to do the one thing he/she yearns for -- to make it all better.

One afternoon several years ago, in Richard's post cardiac surgery hospital room, I lay on a couch next to him sighing that there was nothing I could do for him.  He said, "Having you here, just being with me, helps me breathe easier."

Sometimes just "being with" is the best form of empathy.  It helps us all breathe easier.

What are the ways you empathize with your partner's experience?

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