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!