The Difference Between Empathy and Sympathy

Often used interchangeably, the words empathy and sympathy are quite similar. They both involve emotion and we use the words to convey to another person that in some form we understand what they are going through.

As defined in the Webster’s dictionary:

Empathy: the power to enter into the feeling or spirit of others

Sympathy: a sharing in the emotions of others; especially the sharing of grief and pain

When we sympathize with someone, we have some degree of understanding, as we have most likely experienced the emotion ourselves, or we can take a pretty good guess as it how it would feel. Eliciting our own feelings, sympathy allows us to have the ability to share their sorrow or pain to some extent. But empathy is a bit different; a more nuanced, ennobled process that allows the listener to intuitively “feel themselves” in another person’s experience, all the while, inherently understanding that empathy requires an opening of our heart and a stillness to our mind.

To hold another person’s vulnerability, with no other intent, is the gift of empathy.

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Working to Change our Anger Habits

Yesterday we explored the phases of anger; if our goal becomes to be able to use anger to our advantage, and stay “above the line,” the first step is in acknowledging that our anger habits are in fact habits. We learn about anger and how to process it from our experiences growing up and we often inherit learned behaviour from our caregivers. If for example, you had a parent who had a “0 to 60” temper, you might also have developed the same tendency.

It is important to note here that the following steps in processing anger are meant for alleviating the first two phases; aggression and hostility/resentment. Chronic anger and rage need deeper exploration and typically require professional help.

When you begin to feel anger rising, if you naturally move to aggression you will have an action urge; if your tendency is to suppress, you will feel that tendency to push it away (or down, hence the build up.) In either case, following these steps can help:

  1. Take some deep breaths. Research shows that deep breathing inhibits anger, anxiety and impulsivity.
  2. If you need to, remove yourself from the situation for 15 minutes. During that 15 minutes, continue to maintain some deep breathing and ask yourself the following question:
  3. “What am I really feeling? What is the emotion that I am skipping over? (remember that anger is our safe emotion so it becomes a default position for us).
  4. Before returning to the situation, ask yourself “How do I want to handle this? What can I do differently to avoid falling into my usual anger habit?” Tip: the 3 M’s help!
  5. Returning, keep in mind that the new behaviours you are choosing are the only ones you have control over. Rewarding the effort, not the outcome helps to reinforce your overall goal of moving towards healthier ways of coping anger.

Giving yourself permission to understand and accept unhealthy behaviours is the first step to growth; the work in changing habits takes time and patience. Please be gentle with yourself as you practice, practice, practice.   🙂

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When We Cross the Line; The Truth About Anger

Anger can have a bad rap. One look at an angry face and it can elicit a whole mix of emotions; everything from fear to helplessness to defensiveness. But anger really is meant to be a useful emotion to us; one that can motivate us to bring about change, one that can help us feel relief, one that aids us in processing more complicated emotions. When anger is in our control, we can put it to good use; however as soon as we cross the line; anger no longer works for us in positive ways. Listed are common phases of anger:

Aggression: As soon as we move to yelling, sarcasm, swearing, name calling, or hitting, we no longer have full control over our anger. It is at this stage, that we move to wanting to be right or gain control and we lose the ability to see the situation in an objective light. There is no room for solution in the aggressive stage. 

Hostility/Resentment: This is anger built up. It is a suppression of anger; sitting heavy within. It is during this phase that I am often reminded of the saying, “Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the only one who gets burned.”

Chronic Anger: This is a phase in which someone lives in anger. Every emotion is now filtered through anger and it can lead to mistrust and paranoia at times. In reality, a very difficult way to live.

Rage: The phase of truly uncontrolled anger.

We may recognize ourselves in one of these phases; certainly the first two at different times in our lives. Tomorrow we will explore how to stay “above the line” so as to how to make our anger work for us in positive ways.

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Why Can’t I Forgive You?

Betrayal is one of the toughest emotions to process. Betrayal as defined in the Webster’s dictionary: to act treacherously towards//to reveal treacherously//to fail to justify. And in my Dictionary of Emotions by Patrick Michael Ryan, betrayal is defined as violation of confidence; disloyalty. 

When we are betrayed by someone, there is an element of the act not being justified. We struggle to understand how they could have acted in such a way towards us as would merit the deception. Without this understanding we are left with a hollowness to the experience; with tenacious feelings of anger, disbelief, and underneath it all, profound sadness. The act of betrayal creates an even deeper wound because we had put our faith in them; we gave them the task of being a guardian to our vulnerability.

Perhaps the act of betrayal was never about us. Perhaps it was about their own inability to face their insecurities, to own their shortcomings, to face their truths. The first step to forgiveness, I suppose, is to begin the process of understanding that betrayal is owned by the betrayer, not the betrayed. There is always another choice before acting. When this realization begins, we can begin to move to acceptance; not to approval or resignation, but simply to accept that it happened. In turn, this allows us to take a path in which we allow ourselves to make decisions; moving us slowly towards empowerment, strength and resilience.

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Skepticism and Cynicism; What’s the Difference?

Rene Descartes quoted “Doubt is the origin of wisdom.” Part of the way that we learn and grow is to ask questions. Sometimes that comes in the form of doubting what we have been taught to believe or challenging the status quo if it doesn’t feel right to us. Other times, if something feels too good to be true, we may doubt its validity. This type of doubt is defined as skepticism – a process in which we suspend judgement so as to be able to gather information and make an objective response. When we are skeptical about something, a healthy response is to question it; to be curious as to its validity.

Cynicism on the other hand tends to be fueled by bitterness and is generally created by an experience in which we felt jaded or scorned. It is doubt gone astray. When we are skeptical about something, we feel open to possibility. When we are cynical about something, we close ourselves to potentiality.

We are much better served to check in with ourselves when feeling doubtful. Does it have elements of mistrust, or is it seeped in it? Do we feel anger with the doubt? An undercurrent of resentment? If we do, it is best to start exploring how we grew to become cynical about that topic so as to bring us to a place of understanding and acceptance – moving then towards the ability to doubt in order to increase our knowledge and our wisdom.

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Sitting on the Fence

In an article I read entitled “Why Getting in Touch with Your Mixed Feelings Can Lead to a Better Outcome,” by Clifton Mark and featured on CBC, Clifton explored the idea of ambivalence and how despite, its pernicious reputation, can actually be good for you. Three points that stood out for me in the article were:

  • experiencing mixed emotions is correlated with better self-control.
  • feeling both positively and negatively about something motivates us to reflect on how our different goals fit together and how best to pursue them.
  • mixed feelings are a sign of emotional complexity and depth. 

When we make room for all of our feelings, we are giving ourselves the space to process; this can lead us to increased thoughtfulness, being  mindful to all sides of the story or issue. When faced with a dilemma fraught with indecision, all the more reason to head outside; to the fields, in search of our fence. 🙂

To read the full article:

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Getting To Know Our Anger

In an article entitled, “Anger 101: Making Peace with Your Angry Feelings” by Lillian Rozin and featured on Good Therapy, Lillian writes about our lack of formal education when it comes to our emotions. She states, “We are rarely taught about our feelings with any intention. We learn emotion by observing our families and by experimenting in our relationships, mostly without anything that could be construed as constructive feedback.” 

This is especially true when it comes to anger. Being our safest emotion, anger allows us to skip over any preceding emotion and instead, step right into defensiveness and denial; moving us into a need to be right, not into process, which includes compassion and compromise. The article features three key points in making peace with our anger; one that resonates with me and is a great starting point is to “examine the messages you received about anger – spoken and unspoken- you received growing up.”

When we can reflect upon the messages we internalized, we can begin to understand how we became informed as to how to handle anger being directed at us, but also how we learned to deliver it as well. By understanding its roots, we can begin to make peace with our anger, allowing us to choose process over past.

To read the full article:

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The Fear Response

When we are going about our everyday lives, our brains help us to move and flow through our activities with a fair amount of ease. We call this top to bottom thinking; as the top parts of our brains, the pre-frontal cortex especially, help us to attend.  When our fear response kicks in, we call this bottom to top thinking; as the fear response part of our brain, in the amygdala, is closer to the base of our brain. When the brain detects danger, the fear response kicks in, and the rational part of our brain gets hijacked in a sense in order to attend to the threat.

The fear response sequence follows as such:

  1.  Freeze (danger is being assessed; happens in milliseconds)
  2.  Flee (fear will always choose to flee if it assesses the possibility)
  3.  Fight (when our fight response kicks in, it is still in an attempt to flee).

While this works considerably well for true danger, it is important to note that it works for perceived dangers as well. Our perceived dangers are often emotional, based on past experiences, or worst-case scenario thinking. Our brains get hijacked into bottom to top thinking, but in the absence of true danger, we get locked into an anxious state; which for some people can lead to panic. Knowing this can help us to begin to assess the reality of the worry. By focusing on fact, our rational brain allows greater space to be objective, which in turn settles down the fear response, and we return to a more grounded state.

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What is Our Window of Tolerance

We all have a window of tolerance. It is that place where we have full access to our Wise Mind, where both our emotions and our logic inform us to make decisions. This is the state in which we are mentally engaged and in a growth mindset. It is here that we function optimally.

When we move out of our window of tolerance, we move into either a hyperarousal state where we can overreact emotionally, or into a hypoarousal state of shutting down. In either case, our emotions are what begin to dictate our behaviours. In a heightened state, we begin to feel overwhelmed, anxious and can have emotional outbursts, triggering our fight-or-flight response. In a dulled state, we begin to feel numb, unmotivated, separate from our feelings; triggering our freeze response.

Our window of tolerance lies in our comfort system; it is the place to which we can self-soothe, think clearly, act accordingly. We can strengthen our window of tolerance by first recognizing our triggers that will lead us away from it – anxiety, feeling frazzled, exhaustion, worry, being emotionally or physically drained. We can use grounding techniques such as deep breathing or a guided meditation to strengthen our familiarity with what our comfort system feels like. We can create an inner dialogue that is supportive and non-critical. We can remind ourselves that taking a break to re-group is okay. We can prioritize self-care.

By expanding our window of tolerance, we move towards feeling more comfortable with our emotions,; we are better able to handle the ups and downs that daily life presents us.

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The 3 Functions of Emotions

How exactly do emotions work for us?

  1. Emotions help us to non-verbally communicate our feelings. We can tell the tell-tale signs of emotion by: the look on the face of our partner if they had a bad day at work, the quiver of our two year old’s little chin when on the verge of tears, the heaviness of grief in someone’s eyes, the look of terror that is captured when riding a roller coaster (you’ll never see that on my face, ha-ha!) or the universal look of joy when someone is wholeheartedly laughing. We wear our emotions in our body language, tone, facial expression and posture, and we can learn to put trust in our non-verbal expressions and those of others around us.
  2. Emotions prepare us for action. Undoubtedly, our emotions will produce an action urge and we are motivated to act on them. At times, this can work for us (the tears that follow feeling sad, hugging someone when we feel happy) and other times the behaviour that follows an emotion we can live to regret (sending a nasty text when we’re angry.) Emotional regulation becomes an important part of learning how to manage our action urges so that the emotion and behaviour can work together for optimum success.
  3. Emotions give us valuable information about ourselves. When we tune in to how we are feeling, our emotions can be self-validating, they can serve as a signal that something is wrong and they can help us to find words to how we are feeling. It becomes about listening to our gut. 

Defining both emotion and it’s functions can allow us to move towards a greater understanding of how our feelings are hard-wired into our amazing, complex system of mind and body; ready to work efficiently for us if given the opportunity. 🙂

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