Empathy! We’ve all heard about it, we’ve all been taught about it……… You know, the old adage of walking a mile in someone else’s shoes.
The first time I remember being taught that empathy is different to sympathy was in school. We were taught that the main difference is that sympathy is feeling sorry for someone as opposed to feeling what they actually feel.
I distinctly remember working out what sympathy is not! Sympathy is not something that a marching drill Sergeant gives you at 5.30am on a cold May morning when you are a 22 year old Police recruit. Not just that, but you are a 22 year old Police recruit in the front of the line trying to march in step whilst you have horrific stomach cramps after a bad tummy bug. So how does this tie into me knowing what sympathy is not?
Well I can tell you that when the cranky drill Sgt is continually poking you with a broom handle and screaming at you to stand up straight, it doesn’t come across as very ‘sympathetic.’ I will never forget what he said when I told him I was not well. His exact words “What do you want? Sympathy! Sympathy? If you want sympathy look it up in the dictionary, you will find it between shit & syphilis” and that was the day I learnt about what sympathy is not.
Empathy on the other hand is something that I thought I knew the meaning of and something that I had heard of continually throughout my 13 year police career as a skill that was good to have as a police officer. Of course I thought I had it sorted, mastering the difference between walking in someone’s shoes and feeling sorry for them.
I was wrong.
It would take 12 years between the initial event and the second event for me to finally really experience the feeling of true empathy and I can tell you the feeling hit me like a tonne of bricks. I have had this story inside me for the last 5 years, wanting to come out, waiting for the right opportunity and personal strength to be able to share it with the likes of you.
That time is now!
The first event
It was during 1999 whilst working as a police officer at Redcliffe in Qld whilst on a week of night work. I had been in the police service since December 1997 and was detailed to attend a job involving a male person who was threatening self-harm. My partner and I did the normal stuff as expected and removed the items from the man so that this could not occur.
Then came the talking part of it, to find out what was going on and how we could resolve the situation and provide the person with the assistance required. I still remember to this day the guy was separated from his wife and had a few kids, he had had enough and wanted to end it all because he couldn’t deal with all of his issues anymore.
Using my newly taught empathy skills I talked to him saying how important life was and that there was nothing that could be so bad that could not be fixed. I asked him to consider how badly it would affect his family should he choose to take his own life. As this was occurring, the sun was starting to come up over the ocean, and it was simply stunning.
So I turned the focus of conversation to the beautiful sunrise and how amazing it was and used my standard line of ‘the sun will still come up tomorrow’, and that ‘as bad as it was life would still go-on and he would get through it‘. Followed by another comment about how amazing the sun rise was, to which he looked at it and then promptly told me that it meant nothing to him and that he couldn’t care less if the sun didn’t come up tomorrow. He simply couldn’t see any beauty in the sunrise at all!
This comment went over my head and I continued on with my standard approach to assessing his mental health state which ultimately resulted in my partner and I taking and admitting him to the mental health facility attached to a hospital in Chermside, Brisbane.
Although attending a considerable amount of similar incidents over my 13 year police career, that one just stuck in my mind. I couldn’t understand why someone who seemed to have everything needed to have a happy life was thinking of taking his own. I couldn’t understand why he couldn’t see the beauty in the amazing sunrise that was occurring right in front of him.
Finding the true meaning of empathy, first hand!
Fast forward to mid-2011 when I was going through my own mental health challenges, I was in the middle of a 10 month period where I didn’t work whilst I dealt with the effects of PTSD and subsequently depression. Funnily enough it was as a result of certain events that I was exposed to during my 13 years as a police officer that resulted in my ‘time-out’ from the working world.
Time-out that turned me into almost a prisoner in my own home, too scared to go out and do the normal things in life in case I bumped into someone that I knew and they asked me that fateful question………..’So what are you doing these days?’
I had worked up to my simple set routine of going out and finding my little out-of-the-way coffee shops to read the paper and watch the world go by. For more details on that idea click on the following text for my full article ‘Blend in with your favourite bean’.
So there I was one morning having finished off my early morning house chores and setting out for my daily routine drive. By all accounts it was a stunning morning with the sun rising up into the sky through the clouds making what most people would think as an amazing picture.
Driving out of my street I stopped to give way to the oncoming traffic and whilst looking for the oncoming cars I glanced at the sky. Vividly, I can remember thinking to myself ‘those colours look nice‘ but not actually experiencing any type of joy, connection or appreciation for it whatsoever.
I turned out onto the road and started driving in that exact direction so the rising sun was straight in front of me. My next thoughts to myself were ‘if I didn’t feel so depressed I would probably really enjoy that sunrise’ but basically it may as well as be in black and white and really ‘I couldn’t care less if the sun didn’t come up tomorrow’.
Then it hit me.
My mind brought me rushing back to that early morning back in 1999 when I was a young police officer trying to tell this man about how beautiful the sunrise was and being frustrated because he couldn’t care less about it. How I thought I was using my best empathy skills to understand what he was going through and offer support, but he wouldn’t take on my ever so helpful, worldly advice. Reality was, I had no idea what he was going through or how he felt…….. Until I went through it myself!
Until I looked up at a sunrise and couldn’t see its beauty. Until I couldn’t care less if the sun didn’t come up the next day. It truly meant nothing to me and I simply felt like a black cloud had descended down over me and everything in my world.
Now, I understood.
So what did I do? I pulled my car over, stared at the sunrise and apologised out loud with a tear in my eye to the man I had tried to help some 12 years earlier but really had no idea what he was going through or feeling. I spoke aloud how I wish I would have had that understanding and appreciation 12 years ago and if I had, how differently I could have interacted with this man and supported him in his time of need during his challenge with mental health.
At that single moment in my life I found out the true meaning of empathy, the true meaning of walking a mile in someone else’s shoes. What it really means to feel empathy for someone going through a tough time and how if you are able to feel that true empathy would it change how you dealt with them.
Empathy goes beyond sympathy and it’s not possible to experience each person’s life struggles in order to understand them. Where sympathy could be described as ‘feeling for’ someone, empathy could be described as ‘feeling with’ that person, through the use of visualising yourself in their position and really listening to them. Rather than having the man listen to me, I should have listened more closely to him. I was telling him how he ‘should’ feel, rather than listening to and engaging with how he ‘did’ feel’.
It rocked me to my core and gave me a new appreciation for the struggles some people go through in life and how we sometimes think we can understand what they are going through but unless we have actually been there ourselves, I mean really been there ourselves, we really don’t and can’t appreciate what they are going through.
My self-reflection time was up, so with a tear in my eye and a new found appreciation of the true meaning of empathy I flicked my indicator on and pulled back out into the traffic and went on my way to the predetermined secret out-of-the-way coffee shop to work on my own mental health challenge.
I hope my 12 year journey in finding out the true meaning of empathy assists you, one of your family or friends in being able to empathise better with someone going through one of life’s challenges.
If you have a similar story or journey you would like to share please drop me a line at email@example.com.
Stuart Rawlins | Healthy Mind Healthy Future
Mental Health | Educator | Speaker | Writer