Dr. Charlotte Howard, a therapist at Deep Eddy Psychotherapy in Austin, TX, talks about the difference between empathy and sympathy and how we can be with someone in a compassionate way without having to take on their pain or become codependent.
Codependency is really when you have to feel what someone else’s feeling. We’re human so we have dependency needs. We need to depend on each other. We need each other. People tend to be very independent and don’t realize that that can actually be unhealthy. We’re social creatures. We regulate each other’s nervous systems and caring for each other is really important.
Feeling What Another Person is Feeling
Where it goes into codependency is when you have to feel what the other person is feeling. If they feel sad, you have to be sad too. If they’re depressed, you have to be depressed or you have to fix it. If they don’t have healthy friendships, you feel it and worry about it as though you didn’t have healthy friendships yourself. Instead of the alternative, which is, “Oh, I can feel good and I’m here to care for you when you feel sad. We can be really close, but I don’t have to feel what you’re feeling entirely. I can feel it enough to empathize, but I have the other foot in my current reality which might be much different.” That’s the distinction to look for.
So what would be the difference between sympathy and empathy?
In empathy, you do feel with the person so that doesn’t leave them alone, versus sympathy where you are standing outside of it and caring from a distance. You really get into their experience with empathy–you join them and you resonate with them and you remember the times when that happened to you. You understand that feeling and you open it up inside yourself. But you’re not stuck there and you’re not them. It’s not the same suffering so you don’t have to stay there when you move on from the interaction.
If your partner’s depressed, you might really remember when you were depressed and say something like, “Oh, depression is so painful and it sucks and I remember it.” And inside you not only have the sadness of seeing someone you love depressed and the resonance of what your experience of depression has been, but you still have your own joy and peace or whatever else you had before connecting with them around their depression. You don’t have to completely jump in and have to be in their boat entirely to let them know you understand it from the inside out and they are not alone in having to go through this.
Exploring Codependency with Therapy in Austin, TX
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