Thursday, December 11, 2008

Wearing each other’s shoes — Sympathy vs. Empathy

From my point of view, the ALI blogosphere is the most empathetic place in the world. And it’s not even a real place. It’s how our hearts connect. We are here from different paths and for different reasons. We reach out from within our own pain to fearlessly reach out to our sisters and put on their shoes for the time it takes to read a post and leave a comment. To “try on” another woman’s pain, so that we can give the best comfort we can.

I used the word “fearlessly” because I’ve come to the conclusion that the main reason people are not empathetic is fear. No matter how much we’ve endured, our own pain is familiar. To really empathize, rather than express sympathy (which always brings the word “pity” to my mind), we must imagine what it would be like. To lose an infant, to miscarry, to lose a spouse, to have an adoption fall through, to have a failed IVF cycle (oh, wait, I know that one), etc. Fucking scary! My MO is generally to feel the fear and do it anyway. But to be honest, I have not been able to click on the links on LFCA to the blogs with recent infant losses. Just can’t right now. If they were blogs I’d already been reading, it would be different. So, while my heart goes out to these grieving moms, I’ll let some other sisters step up. Those shoes are too scary right now.

Where does empathy come from? Is it in our DNA? Can it be taught? My mother and sister are not very empathetic. I have been told by more than one mental health professional that my mother is a narcissist. Narcissists don’t do empathy well. Why try on someone else’s shoes when the world is revolving around YOU! Did I somehow get the lesson from my father, who died when I was 17? Is it a reaction to my mother’s self absorption? Do I try to understand how others feel because she never tried to understand my feelings? (This is the woman who seated me, her 40 something, single, childless daughter, at the kids table for Passover this past year.) Is it just part of who I am, stamped on me at conception?

My child will not have a mother who will assume to know what he or she is feeling, or who will discount those feelings. I can’t wait to meet this unique person.

As I wait for the next step to bring me closer to my child, I salute my sisters who cram their feet into each other’s shoes, endure the pain in order to listen, to really hear, to understand as much as possible, to comfort each other and to celebrate with each other. It’s certainly not the easiest way to be. But my life and my friendships are richer for it.


Aunt Becky said...

I don't know how people learn empathy. That's a good question. Your whole post doesn't leave me a whole lot to respond to that would make much sense (perhaps that's my fever?), but it's a good one.

Rebel With.A.Cause said...

Awww that was an awesome post....

I think I learned empathy from being treated like crap. I won't make other people feel the way I felt.

Hugs sweetie,

Mo said...


What a lovely post. We are lucky to have the blogosphere of women out there who "get it." More and more I struggle to talk to my IRL friends who are not struggling with infertility. It's beginning to seem like they can't ever say the right thing. Even a benign "How is the IVF thing going" is starting to get under my skin.

As for empathy, I think it is learned very early in life - you probably got yours from your dad because it doesn't sound like your mom was mirroring you much as a child (that passover story is outrageous!). some of it is undoubtedly temperamental but I think early learning plays a big role. Wherever it came from, I'm glad you got a healthy dose. Your life is much the richer for it. Just my two cents as a mental health professional.


Dora said...

Thanks, guys.

Mo, do you take UHC? Kidding. Besides, you deserve more than they pay mental health professionals. Why should my chiropractor get 2.5 times what my shrink gets?

Cara said...

Dora, that post was awesome. And - interesting, I just put one up on BHB that tackled that VERY SAME issue within myself.

Ahh - but we are of one mind lately - aren't we?

Ever seen: Fairy Tale - A True Story? (

Last Line: "I think I know what it means to be grown up. To feel what someone feels - that isn't you."

Interpretation: Empathy

Michelle said...

Dora you such a wonderful person. I don't know how we learn empathy... or how you learned it but I am glad you did. I am glad to know you in this blogosphere.

Nikki said...

Lovely post Dora!

I think empathy comes from a combination of things. There is a certain pre-disposition (genetic or otherwise), then there's your circumstances, then there's emotional quotient and I'm sure a host of other things.

All of us empathize and or sympathize differently at different stages of our lives.

I cringe to think how I may have reacted to someone who had miscarried / suffered from IF or anything else before I found myself in this place.

I too salute the people that can put themselves in other people's shoes fearlessly and can reach out and touch a hurting person's heart - mostly knowing that they can't change the person's situation, but can at least make the person feel a little better.

Cara said...

Hey - I was thinking...have you read the book "Nurture by Nature"?

Fun and informative on that what you are born with vs. what you pick up in the world thing.

battynurse said...

Great post.

Kristin said...

What a beautiful post. To have grown up with a narcissistic mother and to have turned into such a wonderful human being is not an easy proposition.

Thank you for being my friend.

Brenda said...

Dora, this is truly an awesome post. Wherever or from whomever we learn empathy, I think it is one of our most powerful emotions. It's the one that keeps us from giving up on the world.

Heavy heart said...

Hey Dora.. I think the people who have seen more of life are the ones who empathise the most..when you go through immense want to pass on the wisdom learnt..a truly awesome post..from an awesome person..

Melody said...

You're right. It's not an easy way to be. It's an important value, though, and it's one of the reasons why I too love this community so much. I've also come to realize that it's probably the single most important quality I want to pass along to my daughter if I can-- even ahead of intellect. Her intended name Simone means "she who hears."

Anonymous said...

Terrific post. Thank you.

AnotherDreamer said...

I often wonder how we learn or are gifted (at times cursed) with empathy. I think it really a combination of life experiences and birth. People who have been through Hell and made it through intact are usually able to sense more than those who have not. Then again, some people just seem to be born with it.

Nature and Nurture I say.

Lori Lavender Luz said...

You have made me think. It does seem that some people "get" empathy more easily than others. I also think that people become more empathetic the more they live through.

With the possible exception of narcissists.