From sympathy to empathy – understanding disability


by Philip Patston.

In her book “I Thought It Was Just Me (but it isn’t): Telling the Truth About Perfectionism, Inadequacy, and Power”,  TEDster Brene Brown explores the causes and connections between shame, courage, empathy and compassion.

One of the sub-themes Brown talks about is the difference between empathy (understanding) and sympathy (pity). Instantly I got thinking about the astounding amount of sympathy or pity people display about the experience of disability.

Brown says sympathy conveys the idea that you could not possibly understand someone’s experience, while also implying that you are glad you cannot. “In most cases, when we give sympathy we do not reach across to understand the world as others see it,” she writes. “Inherent in sympathy is, ‘I don’t understand your world, but from this view things look pretty bad.'”

In short, says Brown, “sympathy is about separation.” Empathy on the other hand, she says, is about connection.

So if there’s one thing we need to encourage in the disability social change space, it’s empathy in place of sympathy. The tricky thing is that people think they can’t understand the experience of disability or, at the very least, if they think they can, the believe it is inherently negative. Of course, it isn’t, it’s just more unique. And so back we come to sympathy.

Added to the conundrum is what Brown calls “sympathy seeking”, where people imply “my situation is worse than everyone else’s.” Of course, not all sympathy seekers are disabled and not all disabled people are sympathy seekers. But because sympathy is a kind of default response to disability, disabled people in particular need to steer real clear of sympathy seeking if we ever want to see meaningful change.

The key to empathy, as my PA Barbara was told in her Youthline counselling training, is that everyone knows how it is to experience emotions – happiness, sadness, frustration, anger, loneliness etc. And disabled people feel that range of emotion.

So, with that in mind, crucial to disability change is to help everyone connect with the understanding of the range of emotions evoked by the experience of disability, rather than the few that most people associate with it, namely fear and sadness.

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