That sympathy vs. empathy video

Ok, so I finally watched that video that I’ve been seeing everywhere.

Here it is, by the way:

I’ve been a little trepidatious about it because I was worried it would approach empathy and sympathy in a way that I find icky.

I was right.

So ok, the video made some really good points. The actions they are labeling as “sympathy” really are harmful actions that lots of people engage in, but shouldn’t. It’s true that people shouldn’t try to make it better or point out a silver lining or similar sorts of things.

Regarding empathy, I also agree that it’s true that people should do their best to be with you in your dark place. I mean, I wrote about this.

But then there was that part when Bear goes down into the hole where Fox is, and says “I know what it’s like down here.” And the video lost me right there. I HATE it when people claim they understand. Really. It’s awful. Because most of the time they DON’T understand. Not really. When Bear joins Fox in the dark hole, he’s being a good friend. He’s joining the fox and sharing his experience. That’s awesome. But Bear has a ladder. And a lightswitch. And went down there of his own free will, while Fox had the ground just fall away. And that FUNDAMENTALLY changes the equation. It’s like spending a day in a wheelchair and then claiming to totally understand what it’s like needing a mobility aid all the time. You may be able to temporarily share the experience, but you can always leave it behind and go back to your life where all this, whatever “this” is, is not a thing. Honestly, I really hope you get why this is not a good thing. When you have power over your circumstances, and you can leave whenever you want, it is not the same as it is for a person who is stuck there.

Now, maybe at some point in the past Bear had a similar experience. Maybe he was in a hole with no ladder or lightswitch, and can draw on that memory to have an idea of what the fox is going through. But even then, his experience was different because it was HIS EXPERIENCE, and not Fox’s experience.

Then there was “Ooh… um… want a sandwich” Giraffe. Another thing I’ve talked about over on my blog is the fact that we CANNOT assume that a person’s ability to express themselves is equivalent to a person’s ability to think. Or feel. For all we know, “want a sandwich” lady is, in fact, feeling all of those empathy feelings. She could very well be struck deeply by what was shared, and care a lot. And maybe she just doesn’t know where to go from there, and out comes something awkward. I know I’ve been in that position. I’m sure lots of people on the spectrum have been in that position (look up autism and hyper-empathy if you want to read more on that). All that video did was demonize the awkwardness, and push a bunch of assumptions about her connection or lack thereof based on a few words. So not cool.

Though I also want to add – maybe that wasn’t awkwardness at all. Sometimes when I’m getting really wobbly, a sandwich is exactly what I need, and my bf has “check to see if she’s eaten” high on his list of things to look at if I’m doing badly. And in some situations – not all of them, but some – doing some “at least’s” can be helpful in terms of perspective taking. I mean, if a person is struggling with depression, they might lose perspective. Their time horizon might be really short (this happens to me). For those people, in those situations, giving some perspective can be VERY useful.

I actually like to use the word sympathy (or similar) in these situations. Because I’m not going to go claiming I understand, as though my experiences are the same as someone else’s. They aren’t. So I can say “I have been through something similar and I can sympathize with your experience. I know how much it sucks. I am here for you, and I care.”

But then, maybe I haven’t been in a similar hole. I’ve never personally experienced racism. Occasional bigotry, sure. Sexism, definitely. Ableism and… um… mental-illnessism, totally. But racism? Nope. My ability to understand the experiences of a person who is experiencing racism is far far less than my ability to understand the experiences of another autistic person, or another person who deals with depression or anxiety. I can, however, draw on my own experiences of oppression, believe their experiences, and connect that way. All the while admitting that no, I don’t really understand. I can’t really understand. I can believe, I can sympathize (yep, the dirty word again!), I can care, and to whatever degree I can attempt to connect, but that’s pretty much as far as it goes. I also like it on the other end. The first comment in this here post started with the commenter sympathizing with me, and it was exactly right. It was wonderful. Sympathy is NOT some icky thing embodying harmful behaviors.

So yeah. This video bothered me. I agreed with most (though definitely not all) of the commentary on the basic behaviors, but I hate how it used the word “sympathy” as something dirty and bad. I also hate that it’s supposed to be good to claim to understand. Plus, the fact that it contrasted one person’s actions to another person’s feelings was rather problematic.

People sometimes claim to understand me. They usually don’t. They are drawing from their own experiences – which are different from mine – and then trying to make a connection. Which is fine and good, but it usually comes with assuming that my experiences are like theirs. Which they aren’t. So yes, connect with me. Yes, bring up similar experiences that lead you to be able to sympathize with me. But STOP saying you understand.

Finally – that video never did stop to mention, even briefly, the idea of just checking in with the person to see what THEY need or want. I hate it when people say “I understand.” Maybe someone else loves it. Asking me if I need a sandwich can be incredibly helpful to me, but maybe someone else would find it insulting. Some people find assistance getting perspective really helpful. Other people do not. There is no one right answer, and just finding out from the person in question what they need should be considered very important. That the video didn’t even bother to mention it was downright disturbing.

If that’s what empathy is – pretending to understand when you honestly don’t, and doing what you think is “empathic” rather than actually checking in with the person – I want no part of it.


Filed under opinion, rant

4 responses to “That sympathy vs. empathy video

  1. I watched the video and thought it was sweet and cute and all, but I also had big issues with the “Wait! She just had the ground crumble underneath her and you think you get it because you climbed down and flipped a light switch? No! Not the same!”

    You articulate a few other really good points here too. I wonder if in the full Ted Talk (not just the clip that was turned into the cartoon) she mentions things like asking others what they need in a situation or clarifies that sometimes sympathy and sandwiches and silver linings have their place in healthy and happy connection with people. I have no idea if she does or not. For all I know she could go on to condemn all sympathizers and sandwich offerers to death (doubt it, but…my point is I have no idea what comes next).

    Anyway, thanks for making some really good and clear points about what this was lacking. I still think it’s cute, but it’s such an incomplete (at best) view of sympathy, empathy, and connection…that “cute” is really the best compliment I can offer. And honestly I’ll call most things that involve a fox “cute.”

    • Thanks!

      And yeah, it sure was cute, but that’s about all it was. I’m increasingly finding myself viewing Ted Talks that way – filled with feel-good sentiment that leaves many people squeeing over how great they are, but ultimately lacking in depth or nuance or recognition that not everyone’s reality is like theirs.

  2. Andy

    Thanks – it does seem a black-and-white comparison. The cartoon oversimplifies. It’s easy to empathize with the fox if you’ve ever been in a hole. The facts speak for themselves. However, I can think of a few situations where it would be much harder for me to empathize:
    1) Say the fox expresses only anger about being in the hole. For me to empathize, the fox would have to get me to understand the root cause of anger (such as fear, humiliation etc) because anger is not a primary emotion. I have a hard time empathizing with anger in itself, unless the cause of the anger is obvious. What is the fox really dreading?
    2) if the fox was upset for reasons that I don’t respect. Say the hole was there to begin with because the fox slacked on lawn maintenance, but the fox won’t admit it. I can empathize with someone digging their own hole, so to speak (I’m guessing we’ve all made bad decisions), but he’d need to be open about his guilt. I can empathize with guilt, more than I can empathize with frustration of ending up being in a hole.
    3) if the fox is repeating abuse patterns. Say I know the fox needs to get himself out of the cycle of falling into holes. Does empathizing necessarily mean that you accept self-destructive behavior?
    Like Andraya said, there are nuances and different realities that come into play. I don’t think a re-do of the cartoon to show multiple possiblities would be a bad idea.

  3. Cat

    When I was first told I was on the spectrum, I started to read. I read books about autism and Asperger’s, and I hated them. That monster they portray who doesn’t feel anything, who doesn’t recognise that other people feel pain, that person is not me. Yes, most autistic children fail the Sally-Anne test, they find it hard to separate theories on what other people know. That does not make us incapable of understanding that other people feel bad because of something. With a bit of practice we can even grasp that they feel bad, even if it’s not because of something that would make us feel bad. What I really struggle with is knowing what to do, or say, and occasionally recognising the body language that indicates a certain emotion. That doesn’t mean I lack empathy, it just means some things get lost in translation. I like to describe it differently. I have empathy, but it’s not the same kind as the empathy that a neurotypical person has. I have “learned empathy” whereas an NT has “innate” or “organic” empathy. Some people with an entirely different problem have these destructive behaviours that deliberately reduce and talk away problems, but that’s not sympathy.

    Innate Empathy: Ohh, you’re in a hole, I’ve been there and it’s terrible, can I do anything?
    Learned Empathy: Ohh, umm… you look a bit like you’re in a hole, but I’m not sure… ARE you in a hole? Yes? That’s terrible *thinks a little bit* is there anything I can do to help? (same deal, just took a bit longer, right?)
    Sympathy: Oh, you’re in a hole, I’ve never been in one but it looks like you could really do with some support right now, can I help?

    Some other problem: I was in a hole and it was so much BIGGER than yours, at least yours is DRY… now why don’t you just get over it and hit the pinata (so that your discomfort stops ruining my day)
    You’re not even in a real hole, you’re just exaggerating. Holes don’t exist, it’s just an excuse and a cry for attention.

    For people supposedly capable of empathy, sympathy and logical reasoning, the creators of that talk surely spout a great deal of “reassuring” tripe. So much so I wonder if they have that problem that they need to make themselves feel good at the expense of others to limit their awareness of the suffering in the world.