I have this idealised vision of how the world could be a better place; if everyone just had a little more empathy for others. Granted, some may need more than others, but the sentiment is the same; that if we just put ourselves in other’s positions, we might be better people. We might understand each other better and be less likely to compete, destroy and hurt. But it’s idealisation and that’s all. Even I can’t maintain this all the time; even as someone who thinks about it constantly. After all, we’re only human – imperfect and governed by subconscious biases we don’t even know we have.
I like to think I’m self-aware. I reflect on my actions and am willing to be self-critical and decide if I could have done something better. I try to know and understand my faults and shortcomings in a constructive way- a way that would allow me to avoid inflicting them on others. Again, this is inconsistent, but at least I try. And I think this is critical when it comes to empathy.
Part of being an empathetic person is having a heightened emotional awareness, but also being able reflect on the sort of person you are. To know your strengths and weaknesses, what you do well and can offer others, and what stresses you or you feel uncomfortable doing. This is part of understanding your own emotions; as complex, nuanced and fickle as they can be. Even accepting that about yourself is important.
Any person can bestow sympathy. Sympathy is simply sharing feelings. Imagine it as two people passing feelings back and forth. There is a reciprocity, a cognitive understanding that someone is in pain or is suffering. You don’t necessarily need self-awareness or developed understanding of self or emotions to have sympathy for someone.
And I’ll be frank. I hate sympathy.
Sympathy is not a bad word or sentiment, and it comes from a good place, but just imagine empathy as an extended version of the sympathy; a deeper and more meaningful version. It’s taking it one giant step further and saying, I feel your pain. You don’t need to understand it, but you feel it. Sympathy is stand offish; at arms-length, an unwillingness to really open yourself up and experience what the other person might be feeling. There is a distance with sympathy and it disconnects people further. Whereas empathy is a warm hug.
Not everyone can be empathetic. It’s a vulnerable place to be; you need to really listen to others and show that you understand by holding their pain inside next to yours. Unlike sympathy, you’re not simply passing it back and forth, it’s not a cognitive understanding. It’s an emotional one; you’re feeling their pain and you’re feeling it because you’re connecting it with your own pain. And that’s the beauty of being empathetic, that by being vulnerable we relate to others and we can connect meaningfully.
We cannot connect with others meaningfully if we simply stand back and feel sympathy for someone else. Empathy isn’t about having the answers either, but you’ll listen and sit with them. You will feel it with them.
As pressure mounts, we tend to become more introspective and self centred. I’m not suggesting this is a callous thing, but rather a very normal human response. It’s self preservation when we’re stressed or overwhelmed. It’s very easy to lose sight of others in our struggle to get ourselves to the metaphoric finish line. I do it. You do it.
But if you’re willing to accept this about yourself, you may be a little better equipped next time to not forget that whilst you are your greatest advocate, the people around you are critical to your success too. We cannot thrive as individuals. We are social beings and flourish in supportive and collegial contexts.
I suspect a lot of workplace and educational spaces feel competitive and stressful. Even when collaboration and unity is encouraged, we tend to feel like those around us are our direct competitors. And whilst achievements and accolades may be the objective measure of success, those are fleeting. Your character is what you should anchor your success to.
When I was a high school English teacher, I was preparing my Year 12 students for their final HSC exams one year. It was a strong cohort, but like every group in life, there is a top and a bottom. Instead of enjoying their lofty position as the brightest students in the year, they decided to set up study pods with the weaker students. They would meet in small groups and share notes, thesis statements and quotations. They explained concepts and texts and helped them to improve their essay writing. These students didn’t see the success of their peers as a threat, but instead knew that helping everyone succeed was the ultimate success for everyone.
This is such a beautiful example of how empathy can help us be better- By using your emotions to connect with others and help them understand that where they are is okay. And you’re there to help.
This something we can all do a little more of.
Georgia Simmons (Guest Feature)
Georgia Simmons is the founder of Little Thoughts Co., a company dedicated to helping people reach out to those on need. She believes empathy is the most important thing in this world and is she could take away the suffering of others she would – or at the very least, make them feel less alone and that they will be okay. When she’s not worrying about all these things, she’s most likely with her husband, Jared, and her dog, Jerry, relaxing on the couch with a glass of wine.
You can find Georgia and her beautiful Empathy cards and Mail Service at Little Thoughts Co.or on her Instagram: @littlethoughtsco