Expressing sympathy or empathy is not always easy. It demands we put ourselves aside to truly hear and feel the experience of another.
Many of us within the “caring fields” [doctors, nurses, counselors, social workers, pastors] are taught to reflect back the thoughts of those we are speaking with. We are encouraged to use phrases like, I understand, I hear what you are saying.
The goal is to express sympathy or empathy with the one you are speaking with.
Sympathy vs Empathy
The “sym” in sympathy means “together” or “at the same time.” We can be sympathetic when we have experienced the same, or similar pain that someone is walking through.
I am able to be sympathetic when I can recall how a similar experience in my own life made me feel. Without a shared experience it is impossible for me to be sympathetic.
Empathy is expressed when we can imagine how someone might feel without actually experiencing the emotions or situation that is causing them pain.
We move closer to empathy when we learn to “put ourselves in another person’s shoes.”
Sympathy is sharing. Empathy is understanding.
A problem arises when we try to be sympathetic when we really should be seeking to express empathy. Without shared experience, it is easy for our words [I understand, I hear what you are saying] to come across as hollow, empty, even demeaning.
A Return to HUP
Thursday night I ended up back in the hospital.
Over the past few years, I have learned how to watch my body pretty well. I know the signs when things are not right.
Thursday evening I was vomiting, my urine was dark, stool light, I was running a fever, had the chills, and I could have slept all the time. As if that was not enough the bloodwork from Wednesday was back and all my liver numbers were trending in the wrong direction. My bilirubin, AST, ALT, and Alkaline Phosphate were climbing. It was like the perfect storm of indicators that something was not right.
Arriving at the hospital I carefully outlined why I was there and tried to help the team of doctors understand my cause for concern.
- “I hear what you are saying, but your numbers are not bad enough for us to intervene yet.”
- “We understand your concern, but are not convinced that there is really anything going on, your bilirubin number is only slightly elevated.”
- “I hear you saying you think something is wrong, but we are not sure what to do right now.”
The longer this went on the more frustrated I became. The comment that reduced me to laughter…
- “Well, maybe your numbers will magically turn around”