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:
Brené Brown describes empathy as “a choice, a vulnerable choice because, in order to connect with you, I need to connect with something similar in myself to know that feeling”. Often, connecting with our vulnerable feelings can be something we are afraid of. It seems easier to show sympathy towards our friend's situation, by caring for them and yet keeping ourselves detached emotionally so that we don't have to get in touch with our vulnerable feelings of sadness, disappointment, and even hopelessness.
That is often why we will encourage our friend to think positively, or that their problem isn't that great so that we don't have to stay with them in these uncomfortable feelings for too long. Sometimes, it does seem to help your friend at that moment. But what if you are willing to give empathy a try? How will this true connection with your friend feel like when you can offer him/her the gift of empathy?
Empathy is a choice, a vulnerable choice because, in order to connect with you, I need to connect with something similar in myself to know that feeling.
To end off, I will like to share one of my favourite quotes from Dr. Brené Brown - "I think our capacity for wholeheartedness can never be greater than our willingness to be broken-hearted. It means engaging with the world from a place of vulnerability and worthiness." In short, for love and connection to take place, we need to be willing to be vulnerable and open. And that takes courage. My challenge for us all today - Are you willing to take the first step of courage to show empathy to another person so that they can feel understood and loved?
Burton, N. (2015, May 22). Empathy vs Sympathy. Retrieved from Psychology Today, on 22 Feb 2020: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/hide-and-seek/201505/empathy-vs-sympathy
Brown, B. (2013, Aug 15). [The RSA] The Power of Vulnerability - Brené Brown. Retrieved on 22 Feb 2020: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sXSjc-pbXk4
Brown, B. (2013, Dec 10). [The RSA] Brené Brown on Empathy. Retreieved on 22 Feb 2020: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RZWf2_2L2v8
Psychology Today, (n.d.). Empathy - What is Empathy? Retrieved on 22 Feb 2020: https://www.psychologytoday.com/intl/basics/empathy
About the Author
Hui Shan is currently the Head of Operations in Grace Oasis Counselling Services. Prior to this, she was a teacher with the Ministry of Education (MOE) with over 10 years of teaching experience in local schools. She has vast experience working with youths and sees the frequent challenges faced by most teens centers around either performance or relationships; both integral in their identity formation.