Sympathy versus Empathy

DISCLAIMER:  This post will make more sense if you watch both of the videos I’ve posted.   In total they are about 23 minutes long.

Prior to coming out, my emotions and feelings often felt like they would betray me.  If you watched Brene Brown’s video The Power of Vulnerability you hear her talk about numbing emotions.  That’s what I did.  The best way to describe it is that I kept them in a place where no one could see them.  Eventually much of my feelings were dim compared to how I perceived others in their experience.   I saw people lose themselves in laughter, tears, joy and sorrow.  It was a rare occurrence for me to be moved emotionally.  I believed that something was wrong with me.  I experienced significant conflict in that I longed to feel more and yet guarded myself from my feelings.  I think people who did feel close to me just assumed that I was stoic, cool, calm, collected and unavailable at times. I secretly wondered if people could see the pain inside me. Could they tell that I was numb and hiding and protecting my feelings and emotions? I convinced myself and possibly others that I was just a stereotypical male who didn’t wear my heart on my sleeve.  The bottom line is that shame caused me to hide many of my deepest feelings and emotions. More on shame in another blog post.

My mom has told me a story about me when I was young.  She was giving my brother a hug and I stared from across the room.  She called me over so she could hug me too.  I wouldn’t come to receive the affection she wanted to give me.  What is that?  How did that distance from emotions and connection develop in my life?  I’m still trying to figure that out.  Was it simply from an early age that I understood myself to be different?  How did I know intrinsically that I couldn’t or didn’t want to share my feelings?  I don’t know.

I wished that I could feel more deeply.  Instead of following my heart I acted the way I knew I was expected to.  I had to tune into people’s expectations of me.  I could understand other people’s feelings and knew how to respond but I did not know empathy.  I knew what it looked like but not what it felt like.  I resisted being moved by other people’s emotions.  I longed for someone to perceive what was going on in my head but never dared to express my true thoughts.

Coming out and finally speaking about my sexuality opened those floodgates and I filled buckets with tears.  It was scary.  I would tear up at the simplest expression of kindness to me. My emotions were let out and so close to the surface.   My first year out I had landed a job at the local Chevy dealership and shortly thereafter one of my dear co-workers went through something very tragic.  Her ex-boyfriend took a knife and stabbed himself to death in front of my co-worker and his daughter.  Every time I thought about this tragedy I began to well up with tears.  Once Kairee came back to work I could barely look at her without being flooded with emotions.  I would see her across the room and notice that she was emotional and I would tear up.  I felt myself coming to life.  I let other people see me cry.  I walked miles in the dealership parking lot.   I would throw on my aviators, walk and let myself cry.  I cried with people who love me.  I was a mess and something about it felt really great.

Several months later a friend of mine reached out to me and wanted to see me after she had heard the news of divorce and my coming out.  She was a close family friend and my assistant youth pastor for a year in my last youth ministry position.  She had told me that when I invited her to come to work with me at the church she was so excited. She thought that maybe she could finally really get to know me.   When we sat across from one another at Applebees she stared me in the eyes and just said “Robb, I’m so sorry” and we both burst into tears.  She said that now she understands why it was so difficult for her to get to know me.  It all made sense to her now.  She saw the real me because I was no longer hiding.  I have nothing to hide any longer.

Experiencing empathy from others has been a key to my healing and to me accepting myself.   So many have expressed what I know to be sympathy and very few have climbed down the ladder to empathize.  Knowing how this salve works on ones soul it becomes a valuable commodity in relationships.  You value those who will not shame you further and work to connect their feelings with yours.  It is also something to practice in life as well.  It’s a true vulnerability that is an essential part of good friendship and developing the connections you long to have with others.

Click here to watch Brene Brown’s Video on Empathy versus Sympathy!



2 thoughts on “Sympathy versus Empathy

  1. Robb and anyone else who has replied to this blog: I have to say My heart aches for the feelings you are having of thinking you didn’t belong before you went public, but I would have hoped that your self worth and peace would have come from being accepted and Loved by Jesus Christ instead of mere man. I am not here to judge you personally or show hatred towards you, but I feel God calls us to hate the sin and not the sinner. I feel bad for you that you couldn’t find love and acceptance of yourself in your family relationship, but had to look to the secular world for it. As the Bible states in these following verses that Homosexuality is a sin and that we need to lean on God to not be tempted by this. (I Corinthians 6:9-11) Just as with any sin, coming clean with feelings doesn’t make them right, but just stating facts. My heart aches that in previous comments there are all these references about how God will make it all ok for you in your new life, and how much better your life will be because your free of living in lies. Do you think you are just trying to justify your feelings of being attracted too men, rather than women as God created you? I don’t agree that you can be born this way, I feel it is a sin (Leviticus 20:13, Leviticus 18:22, Romans 1:18-32) based on what the Bible states. I don’t want to condem anyone but only shed light on what God’s true feelings are on this. I don’t feel you can be faithful to God and also keep sinning knowing it is wrong. I pray for your heart to be changed so God can speak truth into you about how much He loves you and just wants you to rid yourself of this sin you carry. Again, I hate the sin, not the sinner. I also would like to ask about the family you walked away from and how this may effect them today and in the future? Did your wife deserve to be left all alone to take care of the kids so you could feel less guilty about yourself? How are your kids going to understand and grasp Gods truth in this today and 10 years from now? I hear a lot in your writings about how much better you feel and how much easier it is for you to be “emotionally aware” about others but have you put on your ex-wife’s shoes lately as to how her feelings are, how she feels when she has been discarded and told “I don’t love you anymore, I want a man instead?” How is her self esteem now? We all make choices In our lives, good or bad, but we also have to be responsible for how we treat others in those decisions and its not “All about us!”
    I would think that if you are having sexual attractions to men, you might want to discuss this with your wife, seek counseling to address this and if you can’t live together knowing this, you could separate quietly for her and the kids sake and not splash all your feelings all over the Internet asking for soothing words to make you feel better. You could live a life of abstinence knowing it is unacceptable to God, and that you wouldn’t want to hurt your family by expressing these feelings with actions. But I pray you can make peace with God and see that this is wrong in His eyes.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s