In Focus 19th August, 2016

Sympathy: The distance you failed to travel.

I don’t know if it was because I was too naïve or if it happens to every girl, but it happened to me a lot of times. On different occasions. By different men. The problem of being a pre-teen is that you can sense if something is wrong, but you cannot understand, reason or verbalize it. That is why it is so important for parents and guardians to understand signs and signals from their children. But that is another matter and I won’t talk about it here. What I will talk about, is what I faced when I shared my experiences of sexual harassment, with people I trusted.

I remember the day when I had that epiphany. I was sitting on my bed and I suddenly found words to describe the experiences that I had, that had made me so uncomfortable. I suddenly understood that my uncle deserved all the hate that I felt for him. I realized that a lot of men who seemed like ‘good’ men were actually….NOT good (let’s go with ‘not good’ since I can’t use profanities here.)

Let me make one thing clear at this point: I did NOT pity myself, I did NOT feel sorry for myself, I did NOT feel responsible for what happened and I did NOT blame myself. I just understood certain incidents in my life better. I understood that some men (at different points) took advantage of the fact that I was young and ignorant, and thus, sexually harassed me. The realization was a matter of fact for me. However, I felt the need to share these incidents with someone. I felt alone and suffocated with my newfound knowledge that I had been sexually harassed.

If you ask me what I expected from the people I shared my experiences with, I would really not have an answer. There’s a saying which goes like this: “shared sorrow is half a sorrow”. I don’t know if sorrow is the word for what I felt on understanding that I was sexually harassed, but I guess the “shared sorrow” principle could be applied to WHY I wanted to share my experiences. As far as WHAT I expected is concerned, I can safely say that I did NOT expect sympathy.

The first time I gathered the courage to tell a friend in school that I’d been sexually harassed, that too at several occasions, she looked at me with so much pity that I wanted to run away and hide myself somewhere. I understand that she felt bad for me, but by pitying and sympathizing, she just built a wall between us. She put me at a distance, and more importantly, she made me feel weak. It felt like I was suddenly looked down upon, by her.

There were many occasions after that, when I shared with people, the incidences of sexual harassment I faced. But on most occasions, all I got was sympathy. It’s ironical that the reason I wanted to share this was because I did not want to be alone, but in sharing, I realized that I was more alone than I could imagine. I wanted some sort of comfort from sharing, but what I got was stigma.

I’ve thought about it a million times: what kind of a reaction would have made me feel better or comfortable? And the answer that I finally figured out was: empathy. When someone shares something disturbing with you, you have to stand WITH that person, not push the person away. Sympathy pushes people away. You have to make the person strong by sharing the burden of their pain, not make them weak by distancing yourself from their pain. Sympathy distances you from their pain.

A colleague recently shared a video with me in which Brene Brown beautifully explains the difference between sympathy and empathy. Do check it out. I don’t think I can explain it any better than this:

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