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.