Sympathy seeking vs. empathy seeking

I think people tend to get fed up with adoptees in general because they know some adoptees that are so mired in shame that they tend to sympathy seek (which drives others away) vs. empathy seek.

What is the difference? Sympathy seeking says that you think you are unique – you have it harder than anyone else and no one can possibly understand you.  It simultaneously says “Help me! Understand me!” and “You can’t possibly understand me because this is the worst thing ever and no one will ever get me.”  It’s an impossible paradox to help, and it drives people away.  It makes people feel manipulated and controlled. People who are sympathy seeking don’t *want* empathy, they want to be validated as unique.

A person can get stuck in sympathy seeking mode due to their deep shame, and also because they probably DID try to empathy seek in the beginning, and were constantly brushed off.  “You think YOU have it bad? You should feel lucky.  All these people have it worse. *I* have it worse.”    Or, “At least you weren’t (fill in the blank: raised by an addicted mother/ aborted/ raised in poverty/ killed in a tidal wave/ eaten by a shark/ whatever”)   None of these responses is the empathy and connection the growing adoptee needs, and they may shut down. Years of this forced shut down, this non-listening by family, friends, and society,  breeds shame, which breeds sympathy seeking.

Empathy seeking, on the other hand, is requesting connection – hoping that someone will at least try to understand, listen, and help if necessary.  Empathy helps heal shame, sympathy makes shame worse.

Many of us adoptees *are* seeking empathy — and given sympathy, which is insulting and separating, when we are looking for connection. Quoting Brene Brown: “Like all sympathy it [says], “I’m over here and you’re over there. I’m sorry for you and I’m sad for you. AND, while I’m sorry that happened to you, let’s be clear: I’m over here.” This is not compassion.” (As an example, she had lied to her child’s teacher to get out of an embarrasing situation. A “friend” said, “Oh my God, that’s so horrible. I can’t imagine doing that. I’m so sorry.”)  It is very judgmental.

People that give adoptees sympathy do not want to “reach into our world” to see how we might be feeling. They want to stay separated. Above that. Perhaps it is just way too scary to contemplate, being separated from absolutely everything that you know and love and being thrown into an unknown world. (This should give you pause… if it is too scary to think about, to enter into in order to connect, imagine how it feels for the adoptee. Living it every day for the rest of their lives. Now do you believe it’s trauma?)

Adoptees, however, need more than anything to feel connected, that people are at least attempting to be in our world and understanding us, because the nature of adoption is so separating.

It’s easy to mix these up at first glance, sympathy and empathy, especially if you have been burned by a sympathy seeker who just couldn’t be helped by any amount of empathy you tried to give.  The next adoptee that comes along who talks about her pain gets lumped in with the sympathy seeker, even though she was seeking connection and hoped to gain some understanding of you and herself and your relationship with each other.

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It's lovely to have you here. Please keep comments respectful of the adoptees who read here. "Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle."

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