Brené Brown is a researcher who has specialized in studying shame for most of her career. Her recent book, I Thought It Was Just Me (but it isn't): Making the Journey from "What Will People Think?" to "I Am Enough" covers the topic of shame and how to develop resilience. She writes about how empathy can help heal feelings of shame by showing people they aren’t alone.
Sympathy, on the other hand, separates us even more. Brené Brown writes about her experience of sharing a story that positioned her as a less-than-perfect mother with a young couple. Their reaction made her feel terrible.
“When I was done, they shook their heads in unison and looked at me with pity. She leaned toward me and said, “Oh, my God, that’s so horrible. I can’t imagine doing that. I’m so sorry.” Their sympathy slapped me across the face. Like all sympathy, it said, “I’m over here and you’re over there. I’m sorry for you and I’m sad for you. AND, while I’m sorry that happened to you, let’s be clear: I’m over here.” This is not compassion.”
The flip side of this is the person who seeks sympathy. I’ve met many job seekers over the years who reveled in their tales of woe. They didn’t respond to offers of help, and they almost never followed through on advice they received. What they wanted was sympathy. Brown writes, “One sentiment underlying sympathy seeking is often “Feel sorry for me because I’m the only one this is happening to” or “my situation is worse than everyone else’s.” This naturally creates disconnection and separation. People seeking sympathy are not looking for empathy or evidence of shared experiences—they are searching for confirmation of their uniqueness.”
If you have someone like this in your life, you know how hard it is to feel compassionate for them. Brown writes, “It’s not unusual to feel resentful or dismissive when someone requests our sympathy. When people look for sympathy, it feels like a no-win situation. On the one hand they are telling us that they have it worse than anyone and no one can understand, but on the other hand they are looking for our validation.”
If you find yourself using phrases like “You have no idea how hard this is” or competing for who has the hardest/ most unfair / most victimized story, you’re in danger of alienating the people who want to help you the most.
Another dangerous practice, Brown writes, is starting any sentence with “At least.” “At least you had a great job for several years. I’ve been working crappy menial jobs since I moved here.” “At least you qualify for unemployment. I got denied when I tried to file.” “At least you have a husband at home bringing in income. Try making it on your own.”
Brown writes that “at least” is never an empathetic response. “This “at least” response is primarily about our own discomfort. “'At leasting' someone is equivalent to shutting her down.”
Shame is isolating and debilitating. When you experience losing a job or being out of work for an extended period, it’s natural to feel sorry for yourself. But asking someone else to feel sorry for you is not the answer. For guidance on practicing empathy versus sympathy, read this post.