Brené Brown. We know, get in line. She’s an inspirational phenom and a research professor who has spent her career studying human connection and courage and bravery and shame. But it was her animated video describing the difference between empathy and sympathy that got us. And by got us, we mean it resonated with us, in a way we hadn’t expected.
You see, we both know the dictionary definitions of empathy and sympathy and the distinctions between them. And while we could define them from a technical perspective, somehow the oddly relatable animal cartoon that accompanied her famous TED talk made it crystal clear. It was like all of a sudden we could feel the difference between the two. A complicated topic became easy-ish to wrap our heads around.
A: just saw a video
A: that i loved
A: sending to u
A: watch it
(40 mins later)
A: did u watch it?
L: why r u sending this to me?
A: just watch it
A: and next time u need me
A: i’m throwing a sandwich down to u
A: and it won’t be a good one u like
A: from millburn deli
A: watch the damn video
(20 mins later)
L: watched it
L: 9 times
Angie discovered the video one day while she was productively scrolling through her Facebook feed. She loved it immediately and when Laura finally watched it, it spoke to her too. It’s not surprising, really, because 17 million others have watched it with us. Turns out, the clever visual is compelling, and it helped us to see the concept of empathy versus sympathy in a new way.
So, if you don’t think you’ll watch the video, here are the cliff notes (we know it’s called spark notes these days but it’s hard to teach old girls new tricks). It begins with three adorable, animated animals - sounds weird, we know. The sad fox (who walks around with a tiny, always-raining gray cloud over her head) climbs into an imaginary hole of despair and a sweet, large bear wearing a baseball hat climbs down to comfort her, to feel her pain. A sassy giraffe appears and decides not to climb down, but rather to stay up top and throw a sandwich into the hole, but newsflash, the sandwich is really sympathy. The giraffe is kind of a dick, and just offering a lousy form of support - he even uses the dreaded ‘at least’ phrase in his lame attempt to ‘silver lining’ the sad fox’s situation. You almost can’t help but think the bear is an awesome friend and the giraffe is a crappy friend (all while trying to convince yourself that you aren’t the giraffe). But the craziest part is that these animated animals are teaching us a big fat lesson.
And just like that, we started using her words. The concepts became palpable, tangible, something we could incorporate into our own lives and relationships. It gave us a set of unique words in which to use our newfound knowledge. Angie tells Laura a problem, Laura asks do you want me to throw down a sandwich, I mean a salad, or do you want me to get in the hole with you? We start using ‘silver lining’ as a verb, like I hate to silver lining it but blah blah blah. Somehow the visualization of Brené’s video helped us in many ways, including the fact that we both stopped using the phrase ‘at least’ or ‘at least’ we stopped using it as frequently. Ok ok, ‘at least’ we began to notice when we were using it.
A: just got off the phone with my grama
L: she ok?
A: yeah, the same
A: but i miss her
L: at least u still have a grandma
A: did you just ‘at least’ me?!
A: while subtly correcting my spelling?
A: bc that’s how i spell grama
L: i’m just saying you’re lucky that your grandma is still alive
A: i know what you’re just saying
A: so when r u gonna throw down my sandwich?
L: u don’t eat sandwiches
A: funny girl
L: but about the video and the sandwiches
L: i love it, overall
L: i just don’t love every single little part of it
L: because is sympathy always bad?
L: isn’t there a time and a place for sympathy?
L: and a different time and place for empathy?
L: like why is throwing down the sandwich and expressing sympathy categorically vilified?
A: um, first u tell me i can’t say grama
A: and then u tell me the giraffe is being categorically vilified?
A: i mean who says categorically vilified on a text?
A: or anywhere for that matter
A: but ok
A: i agree
A: u can’t get in the hole with everyone
A: for everything
L: yeah but it’s nice when you do
A: yeah it is
A: i think you know when to get in the hole and when to throw down a salad
L: i think you do too
A: and just so you know
A: i’m pretty sure the giraffe is actually an antelope
A: and i kinda love him
So, there you have it. We learned something more about something we thought we already knew.
For us, this concept is like finding that perfect quote, the one that speaks to you, the one that puts into words a feeling you have, in just the right way. It’s why we read articles about the same topic over and over, searching for that one thing that strikes a chord - that expresses our thoughts, beliefs, ideas - in a way that makes sense. Because we can ‘know’ things but not always ‘know’ how to express them. It’s not easy to find the right words to describe feelings. Brené is good at it. We’re works in progress. At least there’s that.
And since we’re rookies, we’ll just cover our asses and give credit where credit is due:
Brené Brown, PhD, LMSW - voice
Katy Davis - animation
The RSA - production