Empathy vs. Sympathy

My first college exam:  It was the second week of classes and I already had an exam in my chemistry class…. what already: I thought to myself with the worst stomach butterflies ever.  I remember walking into the basketball stadium with a new and freshly sharped yellow pencil, a water bottle, granola bar, a huge pink eraser, and a sweat drop on my forehead.  I was absolutely terrified.  All of the people, where was I going to sit?  When I am done I really have to walk in front of everyone to turn in my test, what I am one of the last ones done or what if I finish to early?  I stood at the top of the stairway still terrified.  Someone walked right by me and accidentally bumped into me as this happened I was too startled to focus on holding my pencil… I dropped it.  I watched it bounce down each step of the stadium, I watched someone pick it up shrug their shoulders and bring it with them.  They didn’t even look around to see if anyone was waving them down that it was their pencil.  I put my head down and under my breath said “just great”.  Right after I said this A girl came up from behind me and put her hand on my head.  She said “you good”?  before I could even respond she continued to tell me how she just watched that kid bump the pencil out of my hand and without even letting me say yes, she had a pencil in my hand and was telling me to follow her.  I sat next to her, she started to tell me stories about her first college exams and how everything feels so scary and the end of the world.  She told an embarrassing story of how she tripped on the basketball court right before turning the exam in, then another time where she was really sick and was coughing the whole time and how everyone in the gym was glaring through her.  While she was telling me these stories she wasn’t there to listen to me tell a sob story of how scared I was, how I am scared to have bad luck now that I dropped that pencil, how I really should be studying before the test instead of listening to her.  Instead I sat there and listened to her, and without even noticing I had a huge smile on my face, and wasn’t worried at all.  She put her hand on my head (something my mom would do) and she said, we have all been sitting exactly where you are literally, and it is scary as hell.  I sat there with a smile while the professor explained the rules and people like ants in an ant farm ran down and passed the  exams out.  I looked over at this girl (didn’t even know her name and already felt like she was my big sister), she nodded and gave me a wink and whispered see you on the other side.

After the fact:  I took that exam with a smile on my face.  Everyone in that room, the guy who took my pencil, the guy next to me tapping his foot, the girl in the corner coughing… all become like a bug on a wall.  I was in a room alone and I was killing this exam.  I turned my exam in with a smile on my face and no… I didn’t embarrass myself leaving.  I walked out of the arena feeling great about my first college exam.  Yes, because I studied and knew the material, but the main reason was because of this no name girl that calmed me down.  She calmed me down by empathy, not sympathy.  She didn’t make me feel like I was crazy and was the only one ever feeling this way, she literally stepped into my shoes and told the time she went through the same feeling and it was even worse.  Her style of what she chose to say and the relaxed tone she said them in made me feel understood.  The best part of it all is that she was a stranger and quickly became as comforting as someone like my mom: who is tone of the most comforting person in my life.Screen Shot 2016-09-15 at 8.08.07 PM.pngIn contrast:  The day after I felt on top of the world.  I got in A on my exam and felt like anything was possible.  I signed up for a group fitness class at the rec center.  As I was starting the class I had my station all set up and so did 12 other girls.  Each a space enough away from one another to call it “our own space”.  Group exercise class is always awkward before the instructor comes and breaks the ice with their loud microphone.  Everyone is stuffed in a room alone and is suppose to get really sweaty and smelly for an hour with strangers…weird.  Anyways, we were all sitting there stretching on our own and I was nervous for what the class was going to be like.  I have a bad knee so usually take things easy with exercising.  The class was a kickboxing class.  I had never been to a kickboxing class.  By the looks of things everyone in this class looked like they were kickboxing inside their mothers womb.  I was sweating during the warm up and my knee started to hurt. But I kept going.  About half way through the class I couldn’t bend down without my knee popping, I decided to stop… packed everything up and started rolling up the mat.  Everyone was working hard still and glancing at me out the side of their eye.  I started to walk towards the door. The instructor over the microphone yelled between breaths “Better luck next class”, and a girl right next to the door looked at me and said “at least you tried”.  I walked out the door with a frown on my face and so confused to what just happened.  Were they trying to be supportive?  Were they trying to actually tell me I can be better the more I try?  I honestly don’t know.  That my friends I call sympathy.  Sympathy to me is a lazy way to be there for someone.  It is the way to make the person who is being sympathetic feel like they are being supportive to make themselves feel better and not actually for the other person.  I didn’t realize this until this unit and the videos we watched, but there is a huge difference between the two.

Youtube Videos:

  1. The power of empathy: Helen Riess at TEDxMiddlebury (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=baHrcC8B4WM)
  2. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zh55e6U_XPM(https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zh55e6U_XPM)
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