Pity is feeling bad for someone. Empathy is feeling bad with someone.
This is a picture of the feeling buddies that I’ve used for years with my boys to name their feelings. There are songs and worksheets through Conscious Discipline that we use as well. It is sometimes astonishing to me how much I learn from attempting to teach my boys about their emotions and how important it is.
For instance, this school year, my 4 year old started coming home pretty much every day primed to have a meltdown. At first, I did interpret the behavior and commentary as insubordination and punished him accordingly. Then, I finally realized that he was holding in those big feelings all day at school and when he was able to relax, they all came out. Once we figured that out, the time after school has gotten a LOT smoother and I’ve been able to show him much more empathy than before. We also can’t plan outings right after school without a lot of planning.
I often ponder the differences between pity and empathy as I encounter different people and very different reactions to my diagnosis. Initially, I didn’t tell anyone and often reacted angrily when people would ask about my bald head or why I was limping. Now, I often use my diagnosis as a bit of a weapon, dropping that information like a bomb on unsuspecting people I want to feel bad. Yep, I have used the knowledge of my diagnosis to make people feel bad at times, sometimes for honorable purposes and sometimes just to get what I want or because I’m mad at something. I get it, not so nice. I’m not above fighting with every tool in my arsenal.
The different responses I receive have a lot to do with if the person is feeling pity or empathy. The ones who pity me, will acknowledge the information, usually in a surfacey way and move on without engaging or feeling much of anything. The rare ones who show empathy, are literally stopped in their tracks.
The differences are profound.
With the ones who demonstrate pity, I often feel dirty after talking with them. The concept of pearls before swine comes to mind and usually I regret giving these people information about me. Many of the people I talk to at my insurance company or my cancer center fall into this category. They may feel bad for me, but it doesn’t change their behavior, they don’t do anything differently and much of what they do or don’t do makes my life much more difficult.
The people who show empathy are rare and their reactions often surprise me. I live with death all the time, so talking about things that seem normal now often surprise others. I had an extremely poignant conversation with the lady doing my facial at the spa for my birthday. She was in tears and made a donation to Metavivor right in front of me. That was powerful.
As 2020 ramps up, I am reminded that to enter into real relationships, empathy is a necessary ingredient. Remembering how I feel when on the receiving end of both pity and empathy helps me to remember which one is more important.
How will you show empathy?