For those who are also learning just now (in adulthood) the difference between pity, sympathy, empathy, and compassion.
Growing up, I didn’t know the difference between these four things I assumed were synonyms. Though I was always a writer and confident in my ability to spell words correctly and suss out definitions through context, I wasn’t able to identify the differences between pity, sympathy, empathy, and compassion. Instead, I lumped them all together and used them interchangeably.
I wasn’t taught empathy, at no fault of my parents’. It wasn’t a conversation in our house: what other people were feeling or why they were feeling those emotions. Because of my lack of empathy education, I often judged others without realizing I was doing it, simply because I thought there was only right or wrong. We didn’t talk about feelings. Conversations weren’t lead with phrases like, “When you did this, it made me feel this.” It just didn’t happen. I was taught to be kind, generous, and thoughtful but I seldom thought about the reasons people felt the way they did. I soon understood because I wasn’t educated on empathy from the start, I was missing out.
In my adult life, I’ve done a lot of internal, emotional work and consequently, I’ve put a great emphasis on becoming better at empathy. It’s a constant, perpetual education and every day I’m acquiring more tools at my disposal to lead with peoples’ emotions instead of with ignorant judgments.
Here are the five lessons about empathy I wish I’d learned years ago:
Talking About Our Feelings Helps Us Imagine How Others Feel.
The key to having empathy—to being able to put myself in someone else’s shoes—is to get more vulnerable with my own emotions. Being cognizant of feelings has provided more understanding of why I do the things I do and why I react in the manner that I do. Getting more in touch with my emotions has undoubtedly aided me empathizing better with others.
Everyone Speaks a Love Language.
You’ve heard of the five Love Languages: words of affirmation, quality time, receiving gifts, acts of service, and physical touch. Everyone speaks either one of these or a combination and it’s important to understand that not everyone’s way of receiving or giving love is necessarily the same. Understanding other peoples’ Love Languages and how they use them will help put their actions into perspective.
Envisioning Others’ Perspectives Prevents Judgment.
Leading with judgment is to be walking blind. If instead you lead with envisioning others’ perspectives while hearing their stories, it prevents you from making an unfair assumption about their choices or life.
Consider Physical Cues.
Registering peoples’ physical cues can aid in painting a picture for what’s going on inside. (Not always, but sometimes, it can be beneficial.) I grew up believing I could have what I was feeling—an emotion like disgust or repulsion—written all over my face, then lie about the dress my mother was holding up, agreeing that yes, despite my expression, I really did like it.
Anger Is Often a Mask.
Are you actually feeling anger? A lot of times as I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that though I would explain my emotions as “angry” or “irate,” I was in fact feeling something more complex—like confusion, vulnerability, or rejection. Yet I masked it with a more socially acceptable response. Oftentimes in our culture, it’s more conceivable to feel anger than it is to feel vulnerable. Really be vigilant about assessing your own feelings for what they truly are and empathy will eventually become more intuitive to practice.
What has your experience with empathy been like? Share it below!