Pity or Sympathy or Empathy?
The following is adapted from my book Who Says I Can’t available here.
The definition of pity is “the feeling of sorrow and compassion caused by the suffering and misfortunes of others.”
Stephen Hawking, the world famous physicist and bestselling author who, at age twenty, was diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (also referred to as Lou Gehrig’s Disease), has spent almost fifty years in a wheelchair. He spoke frequently about the attitude that has sustained him. “It is a waste of time to be angry about my disability,” Hawking said in a 2005 interview with The Guardian newspaper. “One has to get on with life, and I haven’t done badly. People won’t have time for you if you are always angry or complaining.”
Hawking and everyone else who has faced a limiting physical condition knows how easy it is to slip into self-pity. We are all prone to it, disabled or not. We would all do well to listen to people like Hawking, for whom self-pity is anathema. The definition of self-pity in Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary is “a self-indulgent dwelling on one’s own sorrows or misfortunes.” And the problem with sympathy is that it includes pity in its definition: “feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else’s misfortune.
Regaining confidence is where each of our personal fight begins. It’s rare to find a person–able-bodied or disabled, healthy or sick–who has not been knocked down by life at one time or another. Regaining confidence is particularly difficult when we face a debilitating physical challenge, but we need to transcend our human propensity for self-pity if we want to feel fully alive and live up to our potential.
I’ve always found that my confidence is boosted when I push my body to the limit–skiing, riding my bike, swimming long distances–and deal with the physical pain. Win one victory; go on to the next battle; and win that too. Pretty soon, these little victories start to add up to confidence. At that point, self-pity becomes but a distant memory.
After many years of focus and hard work on these athletic endeavors I have found I get a big thrill out of people’s reactions to my physical and athletic accomplishments. I enjoy seeing their reaction when I race down the pool and execute a clean flip turn, spike the volleyball over the net, pedal past them on a hill or drop into a steep ski chute. It may be true that part of what I am sometimes doing in these situations is “showing off.” But it’s a very different kind of showing off from what I did as a kid. I am making a statement: “Hey, don’t think of me as disabled because maybe I can do some things you can’t or won’t.” A person with a disability has a strong desire to move people from their initial reaction of sympathy (which is defined in terms of pity) to one of respect.
This attitude I had developed–this super-aggressive drive to perform at a level higher than others–was a psychological adaptation on my part to overcompensate and prevent that dreaded pity reaction. It’s a natural defense mechanism, one born of a disabled person’s desire to combat their disability’s constant attacks on their self-confidence, self-image, and ultimately, self-esteem. The process I, and every other disabled person, had to go through was a healthy voyage of self-discovery. I was having my own “Post-Disability Syndrome” just like what Lauro Halstead found when interviewing polio survivors for his Scientific American article, “Post-Polio Syndrome,” “Don’t let anyone tell you that we just want to be ‘normal’ like everyone else. We have to be better than everyone else just to break even . . . and that may not be enough.”
Here and in my book Who Says I Can’t I want to shine a bright light on the difference between empathy and sympathy; the difference is important. While sympathy is the sharing in someone’s pain–and it is a genuine and compassionate feeling–it can sometimes feel to the recipient like pity. Empathy, on the other hand, is identifying and trying to truly understand what someone is going through. If you are feeling sympathy for someone, that includes pity and they will not like it. Instead, try to shift yourself into the state of mind where you put yourself in their shoes and you will shift over to the empathy side of things where life will be much better for all involved.