There is often much confusion about offering sympathy or empathy. What is the difference? Which is appropriate, and when.
When I was at Unity School (now Unity Institute) taking a spiritual counseling class, our teacher, Dr. Robert Brumet, gave an impactful visual demonstration of the difference between sympathy and empathy. He approached one student and said, “Oh, you have a pen! Can I hold it?” The student handed him the pen. “This is a pen? How wonderful! Do you like it? Does it write well? Thanks for sharing with me!” Dr. Brumet then proceeded to walk away from the student—carrying the student’s pen!
“That’s sympathy,” he told us.
Then he walked up to another student and asked to see that student’s pen. He looked at the pen, turned it side to side, nodded understandingly, and handed it back to the student before walking away.
“That is empathy.”
This demonstrated that sympathy is taking on someone else’s problem as our own, carrying it with us, trying to solve it, worrying about it or taking control of it. It can disempower the rightful owner of the problem, taking away the learning opportunity inherent in every challenge.
Dr. Brumet’s demonstration defined empathy as understanding another person’s problem, seeing it for what it is, allowing them to resolve it as they deem necessary, and empowering them through our belief in their own competency.
When my husband and I first began processing together, he taught me the concept of “holding the space”. Holding the space simply means being a compassionate but neutral listener, open to guidance that might support the speaker. Is this not what therapy is in essence? If he shared his process with me, and I walked away with it as my own, how would that help either of us?
In our work towards emotional healing, carrying around another person’s pain adds the pain of one person too many! We have our own work to do! While we can understand and support others, we do not have to solve their problems. What a relief!
Over the years of practicing therapy, as well as doing my own inner work, I have noticed an overlooked problem about judging others: It causes us to keep ourselves in a box.
We have all heard reasons for not to judging others: "Judge not, or you will be judged." "Judging keeps you in negative thinking." "Judging is bad karma."
What have been overlooked are the limitations we put on ourselves when we judge others. When we think toward someone, "You are doing it wrong," or some such variation, we are also setting a guideline for ourselves.
Returning to a personal story I shared in last month's post, before our son was born, I had many judgments of doctors, hospitals, and of all of western medicine's views on childbirth. When my inner guidance came that I would need to have his birth in a hospital rather than at home as we did with our first child, I felt afraid. "Something terrible must be coming", I thought to myself, "or why would God ever want me to do such a horrible thing as to have a baby in a hospital?" I came face to face with the wall of judgments I had built around the medical field.
After nearly 18 months of processing the layers of these judgments (that caused all the fear I was holding), I was able to get to the bottom line: The only thing that mattered was the safety of this soul coming into this world. When that was my goal, I was completely open to whatever way that had to happen.
After our son was born, easily and healthily in the cocoon of the hospital, I could not return to my old way of thinking. I had a new perspective on childbirth: The important thing is safety and the comfort of the one giving birth. Whatever that looks like to the individual is the right and perfect way to do it! Not only did I let every mother on the planet out of a tight and rigid box, I let myself out as well and was able to apply this lesson to other judgments I erroneously held.
We don't always know what the perfect thing is for someone else. But we do know what is right and perfect for ourselves, and sometimes that means doing something we would think someone else shouldn't be doing!
When you catch yourself having an opinion about another person or their actions, ask yourself, "How is this helpful to this person? Am I putting myself in a box by this thought?" We can free ourselves as well as others by checking in on our judgments, and leaving our options open as to what will be the right thing to do in the moment. This reminds me of a poem my husband has shared with me, written by a friend of his:
Cage, bird, liberator--
I am all three!
Think about it, and free yourself!
Detachment is a difficult thing to do.
I’m talking about spiritual detachment: Being “in the world, but not of the world”. That is different from being aloof or disengaged from people or situations in our lives.
Picture a core of light, with strings moving out from that core, attaching themselves to all sorts of things: One string attached to our partner. Another attached to our children. Another attached to our job. Another to money. And others to friends, resentments, good things, difficult things, and on and on!
And all these strings are using our core energy, the energy we came in with to support us through everything. We have to work very hard to keep these attachments going. They have become part of our personality’s identity, and can get in the way of our seeing clearly. How can we make a good decision about our job if we are afraid of letting it go, even if it is for something better? How can we help our loved ones wisely when we are attached to them, or to the outcome of their situation?
Our awakening is about letting go of our attachments, and allowing those strings to connect to our inner soul force, soul energy. Not all at once. Not blindly. Slowly, wisely, and with conscious intention. Day by day, we release our limited ideas of what can be, to be aware of the grander scheme that we are usually not aware of.
When we were getting ready to have a second child, I was looking into midwives to assist the delivery. Our first child was born at home, and I wanted a similar experience once more. I also had MANY faulty judgments about hospitals, doctors and childbirth--none of them positive or worthy of repeating here.
My intuitive guidance, as I looked for midwives the second time, was, “You won’t have this child at home.” I felt afraid. Why not? My automatic assumption was that there might be something wrong with the birth, the child, or me. I tried to force the issue, but the guidance was too strong, and I backed off. I found a midwife, but one who worked with a doctor and delivered in a nearby hospital.
I started before I was even pregnant releasing my attachment to a homebirth, which included releasing the fears about hospitals and doctors. Every time I would go in for a check-up, I would have another round of fears come up to be examined and released. For an entire year I worked on this detachment!
By the time I went into the hospital to deliver, I was free of my fears and could embrace the experience! My spiritual teacher, Jane Elizabeth Hart, said to me, “Go into that hospital as if you were walking into God’s hands.” I did, and had no resistance to any of the medical personnel who helped me. Everything went smoothly because I got out of the way, released my fears and attachments to how the process was going to look, and trusted. I detached my soul energy from fears, and reattached that energy into my Divine Self that knew what it was doing.
I released from fear and false judgments, and plugged into Soul force. There is no outer picture that is the “perfect” scenario. We have to be open to what is the highest good for our souls—and all souls involved—in the moment, and that might just be very different than our human picture of what “should” be!
Knowing your highest good in the moment comes through detaching, slowly but surely, to lesser ideas each day, and plugging into your Soul that knows!
Lynn Barrette, LCSW Blending psychology with spirituality, I offer tools for forgiveness, acceptance, meditation and relaxation, and positive parenting solutions.