My 3-year-old came out of his bedroom last night, not long after he was put to bed. His standard excuse of “needing to pee” was no surprise, but the hard-hat he was wearing had me utterly flummoxed. As he trotted by I raised an eyebrow to my husband with a hushed “What’s the hat for?” He whispered back that he’d suggested it to assuage the fears coming from the “ceiling might fall in some day because the crack over there is getting bigger” discussion that I’d faintly overheard at bedtime. We live in an old house, older brothers ask lots of questions, and little brothers interpret them more dramatically. I had to turn my head away to hide the shaking of my shoulders as I found the entire situation hilarous. I wasn’t terribly sympathetic, I confess, just amused.
Empathy and sympathy are tricky subjects, so I started with the dictionary. Empathy means I can enter in, sometimes imaginatively, to your feelings. I can see where you are and how you must feel. Sympathy means I actually enter into your feelings with you, and what affects you affects me in a similar way. Sympathy reaches the heart, while empathy stays a bit more in the head.
It’s easiest to be sympathetic when we’ve been through something similar. We remember what it felt like, and we sympathize. When the person affected is someone we love, it’s pretty easy too. We’re already tied to their heart-strings, so it’s not hard to feel their pain and joys also. With strangers, we may find it a lot harder. Some tender hearts (my friend Ellie is the most stunning example I can think of) can cry or jump for joy alongside you no matter what you’re feeling. They sympathize with joys and sorrows alike in the most heart-felt way. I truly believe it’s a gift.
For the rest of us, we have to work a little harder to feel someone else’s feelings. We have to “walk a mile in their shoes” and immerse ourselves in their world for a bit to be able to genuinely sympathize. It’s an invaluable part of friendship, that sitting (often in silence) and just being with someone wherever they’re at. Can’t understand someone’s feelings or actions at all, and feel like judging them? Try a bit of imaginative empathy, and see what happens. You’ll find that empathy leads to understanding, and sympathy leads to action. Both are required tools in the parenting realm, and lead to stronger relationships in general. We have to understand and acknowledge our kids’ feelings so they can learn to handle them well: an understood child is usually a well-adjusted child. I’m still working on really understanding mine!