The Difference Between Understanding and Empathy – By Marney Reid

The Difference Between Understanding and Empathy

Good morning LTTH readers.  The title of this post came from my current vacation I’m on up in Washington with my cousin and her little kids.  We were on a long hike, the kids were in school, and she was sharing some of the struggles she has gone through over the past couple years having a special needs child (boy) and an exceptionally intelligent and rather impatient older child (girl).

One of the greatest gifts that I believe another human can bestow is the gift of empathy.  Every one of us has our own unique circumstances and life events that shape and mold us into the person we become.  I believe that HOW we decide to handle these events and the outlook we look at them with (IE positive or negative) has the BIGGEST effect on the person we become.  However, no matter what we have been through, receiving empathy can truly help us through the rough times we find ourselves in the midst of.

I am not a mother nor do I have nieces or nephews.  I’m not the woman who sees a cute baby and goes “OHHHHHH!!!!! What a CUTE baby!!!! Can I hold him/her?!?!?!”  Now…show me a super cute dog and I will probably go racing over and make “cooing” noises at it.  This doesn’t mean I don’t like kids.  In fact, the more affection I feel for their parent, the more love/patience/understanding I will show their child. But the simple fact that I have not conceived, carried, birthed, and cared for a child does not mean I do not feel great empathy for those that take on this journey…especially when the journey has bumps to ride out and rivers to cross.

As we were talking, and I was giving her my unsolicited advice (yeah…that’s kind of my nickname) I was telling her that she should write about these experiences.  I said I bet there are other mothers out there who have children like she does, who would LOVE to read about her journey of learning how to handle a special needs child (emotional, not physical)…and that it would be a wonderful way to gather women who could understand each others’ situation and share their ways of coping and create a support system for each other.

She expressed that, for someone who has not had a child, let alone a special needs one, that I was remarkably understand of her situation and was able to offer some pretty good advice.  I replied that I was empathetic…but I would never be able to understand her situation as well as someone who lives it 24/7 like she does.  I think I ended it with something along the lines of: “there is a difference between empathy, which I can show you because I love and care for you and your children…and understanding, which you could get in the form of sharing your story with people who are going through the same thing.”  What I didn’t say, but was going on inside my head was: “while I can comfort you, with my empathy…I can’t help heal you, which is what you would get by sharing your story with others going through the same thing, who can understand more than empathize.

The reason I felt this post necessary to write, is because I often will try to empathize with someone who is experiencing a tough time, and get “you can’t know what I’m going through! Unless you’ve experienced it…how would YOU know what it’s like?!?!”  This always confuses me, because I always tell them that “I can’t IMAGINE the pain you are feeling…but I can empathize with the hurt you experience because as another human, who has had hurt in her life, I know what that feeling is like and I wish I could make it better for you.”

So maybe the next time someone is trying to comfort you, instead of being upset that they can’t POSSIBLY know what you’re going through since they haven’t lived it, just accept their empathy because it comes from a place of love.  And next time you see someone close to you who could use your empathy…don’t let the simple fact that you HAVEN’T experienced that exact hurt hold you back from offering your love and empathy.  We all need support, and though it might not always be “understanding”…empathy from a loved one is just as good, and just as comforting.