- Apathy, Sympathy or Empathy
What do YOU do?
Courtesy: Stalin S Essar Projects (India) Limited
Imagine someone walking onto a frozen pond. He reaches the centre and the ice breaks and he falls in. There is someone standing by the edge of the pond watching. He has choices as to how to respond. He can walk away and let the person drown, he does not care or he could just stand and spectate, feeling sorry for the drowning person but still not trying to help him or he could attempt to pull him out of the ice. But to do so he must not get too close as he may fall in himself. So he must keep his distance while attempting to help.
This is of course a good metaphor for EMPATHY. We all tend to lose our cool and fall into an emotional state at some time or other. When we walk away from anyone who is drowning in his/her own emotions this is known as APATHY. It means we do not really care to acknowledge the suffering of the other never mind help them out of their suffering. More often we come out in SYMPATHY, especially if he/she a friend. When a friend comes to us in an angry state they want us to hear their anger. It is as if they have all their anger in a little brown bag and they want us to look in their bag as we believe that is what friends are for! Not only that but they probably want us to get angry with them, as we believe that is what friends are for! and as we do, we essentially come out in sympathy with them and add to their anger which is like a fire engine going to the fire and instead of water coming out of the hose petrol coming out and we both go up in our emotional flames together.
Sympathy is not empathy, but it is one of the most common confusions in the arena of emotional intelligence. Sympathy is primarily feeling sorry for someone. It is to create sorrow in oneself in response to the perceived plight of another. It is just another of ego’s games as the self ‘identifies’ with the situation and the emotions of the other and thereby creates similar emotional suffering. To empathise, on the other hand, is to be sensitive to the feelings of the other (the emotions they are creating and feeling) without creating the same emotions within oneself.
Many of us have learned to believe that we have to be in the same emotional state as the other in order to recognize, understand and help the other through their emotional turmoil. But this is non-sense, brilliantly sustained to a large extent by our entertainment industry. It is like saying we need to be drunk to know someone else is drunk. In fact, it is like saying we need to be drunk to help someone out of their drunkenness. Have you ever seen two drunkards trying to help each other? Only when there is the absence of all emotion (sadness, anger, fear) within ourselves can we be open, clear and available enough to ‘sense’ the emotions that the others are creating and feeling in themselves. Only then can we ‘extend’ ourselves as understanding and as compassion. Only then can we give authentic care to the other. And both compassion and care are love in action. It is therefore not possible to empathise with another if we ourselves are emotionally disturbed.
The primary inner skill or capacity in the process of empathy is therefore ‘detached involvement’. It sounds like an oxymoron but it just means we do not get sucked into the emotion and the emotional story of the other while at the same time staying engaged with them. The engagement takes the form of asking and listening for the facts, feelings and meaning of the story of whatever triggered their emotional state. This allows them to articulate the emotions that they are feeling and as they do they naturally detach from their emotions and return to the calm and strong centre of their self.
It is not easy to remain detached when others are upset, especially if they are people close. They expect us to collude and join them in their emotional state. We learn to believe that if we do not, then it is a sign that we do not care. But staying detached when others bring their emotions to us just means we do not descend to their emotional state and add to their emotional disturbance. It means we remain calm and stable, support until they are once again able to steady the ship of their own feelings, which always happens …eventually.
Question: Why do we so easily ‘join in’ with the emotions of others and add to their emotional state?
Reflection: Think of a time when you became upset just listening to the emotional story of another. Now recreate the scene in your mind but this time you remain calm and unmoved yet fully attentive and available.
Action: Practice listening without reacting.
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