Last Friday was the release of ‘A’ level results, again.
As a former teacher in a local junior college, I had to give out results to my graduating students almost every year. Though every batch of students is different, what happened after they received their results, was a scene was always the same, batches after batches.
Those who did well would be thrilled and leap in joy. Those who performed according to what they had expected, would receive the results with acceptance and gladness. After all the results are released, the hall would then turn into a marketplace as friends came together to congratulate each other for the hard work for the past months. Some might be excited about their plans; discussing together which open house they should be visiting; thinking about which university or courses they can apply.
However, amidst all the laughter of joy and relief, it is hard not to notice this group of individuals at the corner of the hall who was solemnly quiet, some breaking down in tears. This is the group that either failed badly or didn't do as well as what they expected. And they would be extremely disappointed, feeling overwhelmed, some immersed in despair and hopelessness.
In moments like this, I will often see their friends coming alongside to comfort them; providing them a crying shoulder as they cried out loud; giving them a pat on the back as a form of encouragement. Some may try to talk them out, to think more positively, by saying, “You will definitely get into a course! Just try.” A few may objectively share, “No point crying over spilled milk. Just look through your options and move on from there.” Others may compare with their results, "Why are you so sad? I did worse than you!" Some who wanted to comfort them may respond, “Nevermind lah. It is not the end of the world. Results ain’t everything.” Is it really so? Are our results really not that important after all?
"Nevermind lah, its not the end of the world Results really ain't everything?" Is it really so?
I know these are all comforting words we will say when we see another feeling down. It seems like the only natural and right thing to do. I used to encourage my students with these comforting words as well. However, through counselling, I learn that sometimes, it isn't always helpful. It is not helpful because when your friend faces setbacks like this, he still experiences feelings of disappointments. It is not helpful because he may feel guilty for having these feelings of sadness when he should be thinking positively. It is not helpful because he may try to hide his feelings, or even isolate himself from the rest so that others will not worry for him. In some extreme cases, he may even struggle with recurrent suicidal thoughts, or fall into depression.
Sometimes, we unknowingly trivialize a matter just because it doesn't seem serious or bad from our point of view. Yet, it doesn't mean this is the same for another person. We are all different individuals, with different stories, waiting to be shared with another person, who can truly empathize with what we are going through. When someone can show us empathy, it makes us feel understood. Though empathy does not seem to solve our problem, it sends us the message that we are not alone in this. Even though it may be a challenging period, when someone is willing to put down himself/herself to take on my shoes, it makes my pain be heard and understood. That is empathy.
Empathy is often confused with sympathy, but they are not the same. Sympathy is “a feeling of care and concern for someone, accompanied by a wish to see him better off or happier (Burton, 2015).” Though sympathy is also a way of showing care and often arises from good intentions for the benefit of another person, it does not involve shared emotions, where one puts oneself in the shoes of another. Sympathy seems to have cut off the emotional overlay from empathy.
Dr. Brené Brown highlights differences between empathy and sympathy in this video below: