I recently watched this cartoon and thought it did a wonderful job of explaining the difference between two often-confused words: Empathy and Sympathy.
A few things struck me in the video. The first thing is that the "narrator" is none other than Dr. Brené Brown for whom I have great respect. She has written some really great books and has given some very interesting TED talks.
The next thing I noticed in the video was early on. At approximately 0:24, the bear takes the unhappiness bubble from the top of the fox and puts it in his shirt (pocket). Along with this, Dr. Brown is saying "perspective taking". It is perspective taking but I like to call this "holding". In therapy, one of my most important jobs is to "hold" your stuff. Much like a babysitter entrusted by the parents, I am expected to "take care" of your stuff, not let anything happen to it, protect it, keep it confidential and safe. Additionally, I am "holding" you. Not physically, obviously, but it can kind of feel like a hug or being held because it is not my job to judge or shame you. I am there to accept your words, your "truth" as Dr. Brown calls it, and just stay there with you in that uncomfortable place, so you're not alone. At 2:17, the bear physically hugs the fox. In therapy, its inappropriate for me to hug my clients as they talk about their truth, but by being there actively listening without judgment, I try to communicate that feeling of "being held". This is empathy and its a very important step in the healing process.
Unfortunately, many people, when trying to "help," go to sympathy. The goat in the above cartoon is sympathetic but ultimately makes the fox feel even worse--why? The goat clearly does not want to stay with the uncomfortable feelings that the fox is expressing. In the cartoon, the goat starts to enter the dark cave but notice that she never comes all the way in--she stays on the ladder, above the bear and the fox. Instead of "joining" them, she literally looks down on them, actively trying to make the fox feel better by trying to show her that it's not that bad--things could be worse. This only makes the fox feel like the goat doesn't understand (the goat has not taken her perspective). Until the goat can take the fox's perspective, her well-intentioned efforts are actually more harmful than helpful.
For so many problems that people experience, there isn't a simple "solution" or even a complicated solution! Sometimes, life is just completely unfair and horrible things happen that we have no control over. Sometimes there is a series of events (some of which we may or may not have been able to do anything about) that ultimately lead to a devastating event, but by the time we reach the devastating event, it's too late to make different choices. Despite this, it is human nature to judge our actions or inactions and say "I should have done this" or "I shouldn't have done that". This, however, leads to suffering on top of the already painful event. That is why it is so important to notice when we are judging ourselves or someone else. If we are, we need to curb that instinct and let that up to actual judges and juries--for another time.
As a therapist, or even as a good friend, it is important when trying to help others that we take their perspective, hold their stuff, and refrain from judging and problem solving or trying to make them feel better. It's an uncomfortable situation to be in because we WANT to help! We want to solve the problem but, even if that is possible, the first step is empathy.