Empathy v Sympathy

Hello everyone. This month’s post is in response to another recent email. A counsellor who, unlike myself, prefers to keep her brain injury under wraps from clients unless they ask.

There is no hard rule about it. I had my own discussions over it in supervision. For me too, how I share my experience was and is important. My most important question was: “Who really benefits from my openess?”

Answer: My therapeutic relationship with whoever my client is at the time.

Empathy
Seeing through the eyes and walking in the shoes of someone else

On the back of my business card, and on my website, I highlight that there is more to my work / life experience and skills than brain injury. It’s just that I have a more instantaneous empathy when it comes to the issues around having a brain injury than a non-brain injured counsellor.

Of course, not all clients arrive having read my website. My limp and poor co-ordination make themselves casually obvious. Together they make a warm, but brief ice-breaker. The briefer, the better. If brain injury is the issue, it is as unique for that client as mine is to me.

(Mirroring)

Speaking of “instantaneous empathy”, I feel inclined to share a conversation I had with my neurologist about it. But before I do, here’s something to whet your appetite. Click here for a cartoon on empathy. It is narrated by Brene Brown, a reasearcher-cum-storyteller.

Here’s my own story: During one of my regular appointmets with my neurologist a few years back, he did his usual thing of asking how life was going, how well I was managing my everyday work, and if I’d yet finished my training.

“Not yet,” I told him. “But I am doing some voluntary counselling on placement. In fact, the funniest thing happened last month and I wonder if you can shed some scentific light on what happened.”

I then went into a bit of a ramble about listening to and observing my client – and myself. I realised whenever my body mirrored his way of sitting. Or copied one of his gesticulations. Anyway, in the middle of doing all this, I began to get a deep sense of my client’s wider world. By that I meant my client’s hidden emotions and his unspoken distractions. It all felt so tangible, it was as if I was being him.

“Read this!” said my consultant excitedly. He quickly scribbled me a yellow post-it note. It read: “Mirror neurons”. My neurologist told me some studies had been carried out on elephants and had discovered that they too may very well have empathy. It was all down to mirror neurons located in the frontal lobe.empathic elephant

I could go on about how sympathy is often unhelpful. But I’m sure that’s a given to a lot of you out there. Above all you want people to understand what it is like to see through your eyes, walk in your shoes. Or not get up from a wheelchair for the most part of the day.

I’ll leave you with a hero of mine, Dr. Vilayanur Ramachandran, and his Ted Talk on “The Neurons that Shaped Civilisation”. Be warned, though. It runs over 7 mins.

No yawning at the back!

Enjoy.

2 thoughts on “Empathy v Sympathy

  1. I understood the relevance of the recent link to the cartoon featuring Penelope Pit-Stop. She stands out as the only female character who typifies a traditional sexist role; pink convertible, using the mirror to put on lipstick, long-legged, thin waist & big chest, vulnerable,…etc. She’s a victim of an accepted norm. Big pity & stood out to me.

    Sent from my Windows Phone ________________________________

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    1. Thanks for raising the blatancy of this sexism. I hope it didn’t detract too much from my purpose in refering to the clip. It’s an example of the Drama Triangle at it’s most basic.

      But I do appreciate your point. “The Perils of Penelope Pitstop” is yet another product of its time (1970s), For me, she seems to serve two functions at once: 1. The reinforcement of the sexist attitude that all women (especially so-called “dumb blondes”) are easy prey in need of rescuing; 2. a challenge to that same sexist attitude by the cartoon’s mockery of it.

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