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Episode 33: Pity, Empathy, and Sympathy

"I don't want anyone's pity." Ever said that to yourself? This month, I'm talking about accepting help, and what keeps us from accepting us. Today, it's about the difference between pity, empathy, and sympathy — and how they're all about the other person.


[00:00:00] A topic I've been thinking about a lot recently is *pity,* because I've been talking with people about what it is like to go through something difficult and not want to accept help. And one thing that I keep hearing from people is that they do not want anyone to pity them. And I think this is a topic that I'm going to explore over the next few episodes, there's a lot to unpack here about pity.

[00:00:36] The first thing I want to talk about is the fact that pity is not about you, or me, or the person who's dealing with something difficult. It's always about the other person.

[00:00:54] Different people view things in different ways . . . and I can tell you that when I was going through cancer, there were people that looked at me with pity. There were people that looked at me with sympathy. And there were people that looked at me with empathy. And I want to talk about the difference between those three things, at least from my perspective.

[00:01:17] Empathy is when someone really can understand your emotional experience, usually because they've been there or they can imagine being there themselves. And so they genuinely want to help and provide support to you, because they can understand that by what you're going through, you are in need of support. And they are able and willing and want to help you with that, because they they would want that if it were happening to them.

[00:01:57] Sympathy to me is more close to pity in that it's like, more empty words: "I'm so sorry you're going through this. My sympathies, thoughts and prayers." They don't spend that energy to really understand your experience, and instead just say or do things from a more detached place.

[00:02:32] Pity is . . . not pleasant to receive. Pity is an ego thing. Pity is, "oh, you poor little thing. How sad. How sad that you're going through that. I'm so glad *I'm* not going through that." It's a icky feeling to receive pity.

[00:02:55] When we share that we're going through something difficult, we are opening ourselves up to receiving all three of those things. When we keep it to ourselves, we are protecting ourselves from pity, but we are also putting up a wall that prevents empathy from getting through. And empathy is true connection. It is a gift that we as human beings are meant to give to each other. We're robbing ourselves of that experience by not sharing or not allowing help.

[00:03:47] When I was talking with a woman last week about this, she said, "I didn't want any pity for going through breast cancer." 

[00:04:04] The truth is, we don't have any control over which of those three things we're going to receive from any given person. But we can know that that's about that other person - and it's not about us.

[00:04:19] Because all people can do is what they are able to do. And some people are simply incapable of emotionally extending themselves in the way that is necessary for empathy. And it isn't because of you. It's because of them and their life experience or their lack of emotional abilities.

[00:04:49] All *we* are, is basically a mirror that our hard experience is holding up for this other person. If they are reacting in a way that you don't like, it's because of their own stuff. And it's not about you. And it's sad to avoid opening up and accepting love and empathy because of other people's stuff.

[00:05:21] You know your friends and family probably better than anyone, but people can surprise you, too. You might expect to receive pity from certain people. And so you might try to protect yourself from specific people and not share with everyone. But you also might be surprised by the people that show up with empathy.

[00:05:44] So I just would like to encourage you to think about that a little bit, and think about whether it's maybe worth it to open yourself up a little bit. Maybe you can just decide to write people off when they deliver pity (if they end up delivering it at all), because being able to accept the empathy, I think, is 100% worth it.

[00:06:08] So just some beginning thoughts on the difference between pity, empathy, and sympathy and why not wanting to accept pity kind of robs you of the good stuff.