Why I Want Empathy, Not Sympathy, as a Highly Sensitive Person

Two people hugging

“All I ever wanted was to reach out and touch another human being not just with my hands but with my heart.” 
― Tahereh Mafi

First things first — I am a highly sensitive person (HSP) who has had to deal with stress and low self-esteem, leading to anxiety and a bout of depression. As a child, I had no idea what was wrong with me, other than that I felt so much, was bombarded with feelings I didn’t understand and was so very sensitive to what people said to me. I spent almost 40 years trying to understand why I was so different from so many others. My family didn’t understand, my friends didn’t understand, and more so, I didn’t understand.

So, until I needed to look for solutions when I hit my depression, I just thought there was something wrong with me. I can’t control my mind’s story and my body’s feelings, but I did go through two years of both professional and holistic treatment and it was during this time that I learned about HSP and several other aspects of my personality I had to first come to grips with and then learn to work with. I don’t think I am unique. In fact, I know now and have talked to other people, both men and women, who deal with the issues that come with the way their minds and bodies react to stimuli.

It was through my trials to my diagnosis that I learned another valuable lesson about being an HSP and what I need to get through my days. I learned I didn’t want sympathy from anyone – no, that is not what I need. I search for and seek out empathy from those who can give it. Sympathy and empathy are completely different from each other. I admit I really didn’t understand this, although I had seen it so many times in life until I studied the differences and saw a brilliant video by Dr. Brene Brown, which simplifies what the major difference is.

See, as an HSP, I live with empathy every day. HSP brings with it a heightened empathic ability to those who have it and I am bombarded, particularly in crowds, with the emotional feelings for others. In fact, I would say I deal with empathy on a daily basis due to this, where most others experience sympathy. It’s not that sympathy is bad, it is just the natural way we think to help others. Having empathy requires that you have an emotional understanding of what someone else is going through. It is vulnerable and is why so many people struggle with having empathy. It is why an HSP in many cases deals with mental health issues. It is a struggle each day to deal with empathic feelings because it is so draining.

But also, because of this, I don’t seek or want sympathy. I would harbor that most people going through a difficult time don’t want sympathy. Sympathy sounds great on paper, but as in Brene Brown’s video, we typically say or do things to people going through a difficult time that are not helpful to them and in some cases are harmful. I have a few examples in my life. The first, I think many who have had high anxiety and depression deal with. Those who haven’t experienced these mental health issues really won’t understand, and from my view, can’t understand. No one experiencing anxiety and depression want it and want to be stuck in bed with a fear to even move. When I had depression, I wanted so badly to go out and be my “normal” self again, but my mind was just overpowering me and my unrealistic fears felt so real at the time. So as people dealt with me, here’s what I heard most of the time:

“Why don’t you get up and we’ll take a walk? You need to get out of bed.”

“Come on, let’s go shopping and you can get something. You’ll feel better getting out.”

“Really, you’re telling me you can’t get out of bed? Your feet aren’t broken, just get up.”

“You have to just snap out of it and stop telling yourself you can’t do what you did before.”

“How can you say you feel like your life is over? Compared to others, you have a great life.”

I could probably write a whole post on the sympathy comments made to me when I was in my depression. But, I don’t blame any of my friends and family for saying these statements. Sympathy tends to come with a lack of understanding of the feelings the other person has and it is a natural way we think to try to help others who are feeling low.

Empathy, on the other hand, must come from an emotional understanding and you are relating to someone at an emotional level. Most people who can offer emotional help can do so because they have also been through those feelings as well. That is why it is a vulnerable act and why it must be learned (mostly through experience), whereas sympathy is our natural communication to others.

But as you can see from my examples, sympathy comes with a lack of understanding that the person doesn’t want to be stuck in that state, but doesn’t know how to get out of it without both empathic help and, in many cases, professional help solutions. I’ll leave you with the one example I recall in my life where this was most apparent.

One of my wife’s best friends had many children. She was always one of the kindest people and best mothers I saw. She has so much love for her family and it always made me, the HSP, feel warm and wonderful when we visited with her.

Her oldest son was hit by a car when he was a child and killed. It was truly devastating and I can think of few things worse than going to a child’s funeral. At the funeral, my natural inclination is empathy, due to being an HSP, even though I had not lost a child. I had other losses in life. But I watched as someone came up to her and said something I will never forget.

“I’m so sorry for your loss. But you still have other children to comfort you. You’ll get past this.”

I’ll never forget this sympathy response. As if the other four children can fill the hole of the loss of her eldest. I am sure the person who said this had the best of intentions, but the sympathetic response sounds painful, no? My instinct was to say nothing, but just to give her a shoulder to cry on and an ear to listen, without responding.

What my wife and I decided to do is name our youngest child in honor of her friend’s eldest child. We didn’t really think about the effect this would have on her friend. We just wanted to do this. As the years went on, the mother moved away but wrote often and always said special things for our child. We saw her many times and watched as the children grew up to adults. We never talked about her son and it was never brought up by her. As my son was graduating high school, we invited her to come to the ceremony. She lived nine hours away and we certainly didn’t expect her to make the big drive to come to his graduation. But we didn’t know what we did.

Truth be told, I was in a happy mood when our son was graduating. I knew he wanted to get out of high school and move on. My wife’s friend contacted us and told us she would be at the graduation. That day, as we prepared for my son’s graduation, we got to the place it was held at and received a note that she was close. For her to be there on time, she would have to drive nine hours starting at 3 a.m.

I was fine and feeling happy. The ceremony was about to begin and then I saw our friend enter, tears in her eyes. That was it for me, because at that point I realized what had happened. As she sat down and we hugged, I just knew she made this journey to watch our son, named after hers, graduate so she could see what her son couldn’t — his namesake graduate in his honor. I cried as I understood what we had done 18 years prior, that was an empathic response to her loss. She could only stay a few hours because she had to work the next day. She drove 18 hours to stay for a few hours and close a door for her.

It still would be a few years before I could fully understand the empathy/sympathy difference, but I knew at that moment that something emotional had happened. I realize now that I never really want sympathy. While I know it is well-meaning, my HSP personality knows it is not helpful for me. Give me empathy if you can or just be there. That is so much more helpful. As Brene Brown said in her amazing video, just give me a shoulder an ear and just tell me “I’m just so glad you shared that with me. I’m here for you.”

This post was originally published on The Mighty Website

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About Alan Eisenberg

Alan Eisenberg is a Certified Life Coach, Bullying Recovery activist and author of "A Ladder In The Dark: My journey from bullying to self-acceptance" and "Crossing the Line". He has been writing and speaking to various audiences about the issue of C-PTSD and Bullying Recovery. Mr. Eisenberg has been featured on several print, radio shows and podcasts on this issue, including NPR and in the Boston Globe
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