Monday, January 30, 2012

I Feel Your Pain....Empathy - a curse or a blessing

I think all of us have heard the phrase "I feel your pain", but do we really feel the pain of another person?  I think as humans, we all feel some sort of feelings for people who are suffering from grief or from hardships of any kind.  And I think that some of us feel it more than others, but I'm not sure why we're wired that way.  

There's sympathy and there's empathy and they are often confused by their similarity of meaning.  I think of sympathy as an emotional response to the feeling of others - as in feeling sorry for or pity for that person.  But to me, empathy means putting myself to some extent in that person's place and feeling the same emotions, although they may not be as great as the person who is experiencing the grief or hardships. Sympathy is feeling for another person.  Empathy is feeling with another person.

I think my "empathy button" is set on too high of a setting.  Sometimes my feelings of empathy seem so great that I'm almost disfunctional.   When a tragedy strikes someone I know, I find myself putting myself in their shoes.  Therein lies my problem and I'm sure the problem of others as well.

As I woke up on  the morning after our friend passed away in December, I imagined how his wife was feeling waking up to an empty bed with the stark realization that there would never be another night spent with the one she loved.  As I pick up my hubby's shoes from the living room floor, I think of her living room floor - bare - where she would long to find his shoes just shed.  I think of her going by his closet of clothes he will never wear, sorting through his papers and personal items - and I feel her pain.  I truly feel her pain and I sometimes cry with her even though she doesn't know.

And it's not just about people I know.  I read a news story about a child with cancer, or starving, undernourished babies and I put myself in the mother's place - and I feel their pain to the bottom of my bones.  I don't want to feel this intensity and I don't want to feel their pain.  It's overwhelming at times.  In reading recently about the subject of feeling other people's pain, I find that I am not alone.  I guess I am what one psychologist called a "natural empath" (see link).  He suggests that it is necessary to have boundaries in order to prevent the pain of others from crossing that unseen barrier and becoming our own - and it needs to be accomplished without becoming cold, callous, or withdrawn.  He also suggests that the pain of the other may have reactivated some unresolved pain or conflict in our own life.  It very well could be.

I've been told that it's good to be empathetic and a big comfort to the person who is suffering.  I know I've done my share of lending a sympathetic ear and an empathetic heart to my friends from time to time.   But sometimes I wonder - is it a blessing.... or is it a curse?

Before you start thinking I am totally morose, I must add - I can also feel the joy.  When someone laughs, I can laugh.  When there's good news, I rejoice.  I can share the good just as well as I can feel the bad.  Maybe that makes me a little more....normal.

Do you have an overly sensitive "empathy button"?  Does it consume you or become a problem in your day to day life?  I would love to hear from others like myself. 


  1. Oh how I can relate. I was just musing on my own thoughts on this very same subject as a matter of fact. The highs and lows around here are so very steep. We have the wedding preparation going on. That in itself is its own roller coaster as the check list dwindles and emotions stay in check. But also, I was faced yesterday with 2 sets of dear couple friends that have both announced they are separated. That grieves me as we have been with both couples through so much. Also, a young 17 yr old girl just died a couple nights ago in a snow skiing accident. Though we did not know her personally, somehow the "friend of a friend" connection combined with my own girls about the same age makes the line between empathy and sympathy so blurred.
    As hard as it is to feel that connection, I remind myself that God made us that way. He did it for so many reasons, to many for me to understand. But I try to remind myself and stay balanced with the idea that those feelings...that pull and tug on my is the connection that helps me know how to pray....pray with my heart.

    Goodness, I am sorry. I am taking up so much room here. You caught me getting ready for bed, that time frame when my thoughts flow without measure.
    God bless you Glenda abundantly in all you do...and all you feel.

    1. Jules, what a beautiful thought that those feelings are the connection that helps us know how to pray. And it's true - each time I have an "empathy moment", I do pray from my heart that God is providing comfort to that person at just the right time.

      I had thought about divorce as I was writing this post because one of the most heart wrenching times I've faced was when my best friend was going through a divorce.

  2. I'm easily consumed by empathy when there's a drama or sad event and I "click" with the other person's pain and grief. The person could even be miles away and I never met and I just happened to catch it in a new for exaple...

    Sometimes it is so strong I feel my knees bending over...

    And not only, sometimes when bad feelings comes from a person (or a group, as it happened recently in gathering) I feel that strong wall and that black cloud shrouding and it can stay with me for long.

    Simpathy as you state is a different matter and I tend not to be in the way of the others when it's "just" simpathy hitting me.

    And no, no one feels the other pain when it's just simpathy you're feeling. I mean, you know it must hurt as hell but you don't feel phisically sick with it because you didn't empathy.

    Once, during a Sermon, my Priest was saying that he didn't like to listen "I feel your pain as my own" during mournings and funerals, because each pain is unique and very very personal and he sensed that when people said that, they were somehow releasing the person in pain from part of the burden and they couldn't or wouldn't. So he advised, it was better to say: "I'm here, let me listen to your pain and stay with you through it" and leave the pain to be delt in full by the person.

    What an inspiring thought to start my day with, Glenda.

    Neither (empathy and simpathy) is a curse or a blessing. And they could be both, depending on the way you "work" with it.


    1. Thanks for your sweet comments Teresa. I really don't consider my empathic nature a curse - I know it is a blessing and I realize that it's God's way of offering His comfort through us, his servants.

  3. I'm with you on this one Glenda. My empathy butter (or even my sympathy button) is always on very high alert! It can reduce me to tears also. I would much rather be like that though, than to be unfeeling or uncaring. As you say, these feelings are balanced by our feelings of joy and happiness for others as well.

    1. It's nice to know there are so many caring people in the world. It is a balancing act we are trying to achieve, isn't it. Joy and grief - so much that we can share.

  4. I didn't expect to be counseled our uplifted today by these comments, but I certainly am. It seems to be an overall consensus that these feelings are God-given - allowing us that special connection that you sometimes feel just looking into someone's eyes and knowing they understand what you're going through without their having to say a word.

  5. Lovely thoughtful post Glenda. I often empathise but not sympathise (does that make sense?)

  6. Hi Glenda. I have to tell you, I have been pondering much today of your post while running errands. While thinking, a song came on the radio that grabbed my heart. A single line in the verse said "You feel the pain of the world but You never push mine aside." Instantly I thought more about what you wrote and how that line relates to it all. Gosh, if I could have called you I would have.
    Like the sweet revelation of a V8 juice slap on my forehead, I thought about Jesus being our role model in all things. In everything He did and still does....He did it because of how He sympathizes and empathizes with us through His love. If I can feel the intense emotional twist of connection with another person through their circumstances then how much more so does He? And then the thought came to me that if He can do it without ever turning away then how can I allow myself times of wanting to hide and deny myself those very connections.
    I don't know, it is just a thought I had made me feel more connected to you. :-)

  7. I have this to almost dipilitaing extremes


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