Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Are You Assertive?

The way you approach someone, the way you speak to them, and how you treat them says quite a bit about your attitudes about that person and about yourself. There is a continuum representing the amount of respect a person has for themselves versus respect for they have for others. This continuum ranges from aggressive to submissive, with assertive in between.

Aggressiveness: saying and getting what you want at the expense of others. [See my previous post on violence and aggression for a more extensive discussion of physical aggression.] Aggressive communication is bullying. When someone pushes around another person so that they get what they want while squashing the other person, they are being aggressive. Respect and concern for self is very high. Respect and concern for others is very low. An aggressive person frequently oversteps their rights, infringing upon the rights of others.

Submissiveness: consistently giving in to others, especially on points of possible contention. A truly submissive person has very low concern and/or respect for themselves and very high concern and/or respect for others. They either don't like to make decisions for themselves or they may be too afraid to confront the other person. This is especially the case when a submissive person faces an aggressive person. An interesting point to make here is that both submissiveness and aggressiveness can be situation-specific. While there are some individuals who are almost always submissive and some people who are almost always aggressive, more individuals select their communication style based on the person or circumstance they face at the time. A person may start off submissive, for example, but tire of the overstepping of another and push back.

Mixed somewhere in between aggressiveness and submissiveness is passive aggressiveness. This occurs when an individual appears to be submissive, but uses their martyrdom or victim status to manipulate others. Many individuals who use this style of communication feel bad about being "pushovers," but they do not want to deal with the guilt or negative backlash of being openly aggressive. Due to its manipulative nature, many individuals consider this style to indicate even less respect for the other person than open aggression.

Assertiveness: standing up for your rights when someone is about to infringe upon them without overstepping or infringing upon another person's rights. Assertiveness means acting in your own best interests by expressing your thoughts and feelings openly and honestly. It also means a willingness to hear out the other person's thoughts and feelings. For an assertive individual, one person's rights end where another person's rights begin. This communication style shows an equally high amount of respect for one's self and for others. You aren't going to push around others, nor will you let others push you around.

If it helps to illustrate the differences, let's apply these ideas to a popular set of characters--My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. Although the main characters all skew to the nice and friendly range, they have their moments when they exhibit either passive, aggressive, or passive aggressive behaviors. The obvious illustration for passive behavior is Fluttershy. There are many episode in which her friends try to get her to stand up for herself and stop being such a pushover. The most aggressive of the main characters is Rainbow Dash. Many times she believes that her way is the best or only way; she sometimes refuses to budge on her opinions until it's almost too late. The most talented at passive aggressive behavior, the master of the guilt trip, is Rarity. Sometimes her use of overly dramatic expression is meant to appear that she is willing to "suffer" for her friends, but it is presented in such a way that they give in to her desires. Of course, as a kid's show about friendship, Rarity often suffers from a lot of guilt after her manipulation. The most balanced and assertive of the main characters is probably Apple Jack. While she does express her own ideas and opinions, she also invites her friends to contribute theirs.

The bad news is that many people, especially if they have been told that they are too submissive, often confuse aggression for assertiveness. They swing the pendulum in the opposite direction, taking revenge for being oppressed by oppressing others in turn. Assertiveness doesn't work that way. The good news is that real assertiveness can be learned. Good quality assertiveness training programs include the following basic steps.

1) Understand what assertive communication really is. This means focusing on behaviors instead of personality characteristics. In a confrontational situation, an assertive individual will describe the other person's unwanted behaviors, express their feelings about the behaviors to the others person, specify desired or needed behavioral changes, and offer rewarding consequences for the changes.

2) Monitor your communication style. Identify when you are not assertive. Figure out who intimidates you, which topics lead to discomfort, and which situations lend themselves to either aggressive or submissive responses from you.

3) Observe a model's assertive communication. Often real examples help us identify the behaviors we want to emulate.

4) Practice assertive communication. Start with friends and family who are the most supportive of you, then work your way toward general interactions.

5) Adopt an assertive attitude. You're not going to let others push you around and you will respect the rights of others, as well.

My rights end where another person's begins. Mutual respect and care keeps relationships balanced, equal.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Is There Really a Difference between Violence and Agression, or Are We Just Splitting Hairs?

Violence, aggression, and hostility are words that many people tend to throw around as if 1) they meant the exact same thing and 2) they can fit one's own agenda with ease. One of the things that I find truly interesting, possibly because of such vast misunderstandings of these topics, is that many parents would much rather expose their children to "violent" or "aggressive" situations (movies, games, experiences, ideas) than talk to their kids about basic biological sexuality. Incidentally, these are sometimes the same parents that think it is "cute" or "adorable" to dress their little girls in clothing that covers maybe 25% of the skin. But enough soap-box pontificating. Let's take a look at the actual meanings of these words concerning violence, beginning with a little foundation work: harm and hurt.

Harm: (n) physical or mental injury or damage; moral injury, evil, wrong. (v) to cause harm, to do harm or damage; to injure physically, morally, or mentally [one could interchange mentally for emotionally]. 
          So, with harm, we are looking at the end result. Was the subject changed in a negative manner? Did the individual suffer any kind of deficit in their normal body or mental functioning, whether permanent or temporary? If so, then they experienced harm. Notice that there is nothing in this definition about intent. We are only looking at the end product of an action or failure to act. Note that we are also looking at the action involved that leads to the detrimental result.
Hurt: (v) to cause bodily or mental injury, distress or pain to someone or something; to damage or decrease the efficiency of some material object by striking, rough use, improper care, etc.; to cause harm or adversely affect someone of something; to cause mental pain, offend or cause grievance to someone; to feel or suffer bodily or mental pain or distress. (n) a blow that inflicts a would; bodily injury of the cause of the injury; damage; the cause of mental pain or offense such as an insult or a slight. (adj) physically injured; offended, unfavorably affected; damaged.
          It would appear that hurt is a more all-encompassing term that adds a layer of causation and intent. Like harm, it is both the action that leads to damages as well as the resulting damage. However, hurt tends to indicate a longer lasting effect, especially when using it to refer to the psychological realm. We rarely, if ever, talk about "harmed" feelings, but we often use the phrase "hurt feelings" to convey emotional upset or pain. Even our egos and pride are hurt, but rarely harmed. Hurt is much more intentional by nature and typically more lasting, more difficult to heal or undo.
Force: [NOT using the physics definition] (n) physical power, strength, energy, intensity; power to influence, affect, control; strength or power exerted upon an object or person such as through physical coercion or mental/emotional manipulation; physical violence. (legal noun) unlawful violence threatened or committed against persons or property. (v) to compel, constrain, oblige oneself or another to do something; to drive or propel against resistance; to bring about or effect by force; to overcome the resistance of someone or something.
          Here we see pure intent. In order to use force, one must have a desire for a particular result. That result does not necessarily lead to harm or hurt, but it does represent the conquering of some kind of resistance. Force is the exertion of one's will, often through physical or political or personality strength, in order to obtain one's own goals. It's very one-sided and does not have to involve physical actions, though the threat of physical actions often leads to a successful use of force, successful meaning the achievement of one's aims.

So, now we have some clearer ideas of the negative results of some behaviors and potentially what some of those behaviors might be. It is not time to explore larger concepts, specifically: aggression, hostility, and violence. One of the main differences between theses terms is the level of intent and/or the purpose to which they are applied.

Aggression: (n) the action of violating by force the rights of another; any offensive action, attack, or procedure; an inroad or encroachment; offensive action in general; overt or suppressed hostility, either innate or resulting from continued frustration and directed outward or against oneself.
          This actually seems pretty simple, especially in comparison to some of the other terms in this post. Aggression means that one person violates the rights, personal space, property, liberty, etc. of another person or another person's property. The point of aggression is to get what one wants and to show that one is the dominant person. Often times when an animal shows aggression it stops--i.e. does not continue with violent actions--once the object of the aggression acknowledges its abilities to cause harm and thus backs away. Unfortunately, aggressive behaviors in humans usually generates more aggression from the targets or creates victims whose rights are constantly trampled. The other thing about aggression is that it does not have to be physical or obvious. I'm sure some of you have heard of passive-aggressiveness or similar terms. Passive aggressiveness occurs when an individual appears to be passive by "giving in" to another's demands, but in reality is using this passive show to manipulate the other into doing exactly when they (the passive-aggressor) wanted. The goal can be achieved immediately through the use of such techniques as a guilt trip: 
"No, that's okay, you can go have fun. I'll be all right here all alone."[passive]
"Well, I don't have to go out tonight. I can stay with you." [response]
"Only if that's what YOU really want." [passive success]
The passive aggressive can also achieve their goals at a later time through manipulation, building up a sense of weakness so that other individuals never notice when the passive aggressor silently nudges them into the corner they wanted. What makes these behaviors, though passive, aggressive is that they still violate another person's rights and allow the aggressor to gain the upper hand and whatever they desire.
          Animals typically use aggression to assert their dominance over territory, resources and mating, and to protect their genetics. Humans don't always fit into this model. There are a number of psychological theories and hypotheses that attempt to explain human aggression. Sigmund Freud believed that aggression was an instinctive drive that all of our ids possess. Along with our instinct to create, the aggressive nature in humans is something that we will spend our lifetimes attempting to control as we try to progress beyond our animalistic natures.The frustration-aggression hypothesis indicates that all human aggression can be traced back to some form of frustration--the blocking of a goal. We only act aggressively if we can't get what we want or need through other means. Another thought on human aggression is that it is almost completely a learned behavior. An individual who experiences or witnesses aggression while they are younger will see aggression as an option, possibly the best or only option, to get what they desire. There has been some modification to this particular theory in that some researchers now believe that there may be a personality predisposition that would modify someone's tendency toward aggressiveness. The biological hypothesis is that aggressive behavior is the result of either too much testosterone, an excess of fatigue, or too low blood sugar (being hungry). According to this school of thought, a person is much more likely to behave aggressively until their body returns to a state of homeostasis. Sometimes taking a step back, grabbing a snack, or taking a nap can be quite calming. Beating up that punching bag can also help use up excess testosterone and other stress hormones.

Hostility: (n) a state, condition, or attitude of enmity, antagonism, or unfriendliness; a hostile act; opposition or resistance to an idea, plan, project, etc.; (plural) fighting, warfare.
          Again, this seems pretty simple. Hostility is dislike or tension created by someone. Often one person's hostility will generate a mutual feeling from their target. Note, also, that hostility does not have to involve actions, but rather focuses on the atmosphere and feelings experienced. Yes, violence and aggression can lead to hostility, but so can petty jealousy, vanity, or envy. This is a state of mind in which one conveys that someone or something is not welcome and that someone becomes well-aware of this state.

Violence: (n) swift and intense, powerful, untamed or devastating force; the use or an instance of rough or injurious physical force, action or treatment usually intended to inflict harm to the target; an unjust, unwarranted or unwanted exertion of force or power that may be used to violate rights, break laws, or overawe or intimidate others; rough or immoderate vehemence, great strength of feeling, as in the use of strong language; damage through distortion or unwarranted alteration.
          Here we see a clear case of intent. Except in the case of natural violence such as with a storm or natural disaster, violent actions are intentional behaviors that go to excessive lengths beyond those necessary in order to achieve some goal. The word "overkill" comes to mind. The point behind violent acts is not only to achieve the goal, which may be the damage itself, but to also leave a lasting impression on the victim and witnesses of the violence. There is obviously the expectation of physical damage wrought through violence. Is it possible to experience psychological violence? The answer is "Absolutely!" Have you ever heard the phrase "fighting words" used? These are words which are spoken for the primary purpose of enraging or causing fear in the target of the words. It is possible to be guilty of violence against another person by using harsh language or a tone of voice that produces anxiety and/or anger in that person. In that instance, one would have used an excess of rough treatment to achieve one's goal, probably to upset the target or get them to do something you wanted. Sticks and stones are violent, as are a verbalization from a barbed tongue.

If it helps, one way to distinguish, correctly, between these three methods of harming others or property is to look at them as part of a continuum of intent and damage. Hostility creates an uncomfortable environment. It may include actions and words, but it can also come about with something as simple as a wayward look or discouraging body language. It is typically sensed and processed at a semi-conscious level by the target. Aggression is goal-directed. An individual tends to engage in aggressive measures when other avenues leave them falling short of their desires and needs. Most aggression is short-lived; it tends to cease once the goal is reached. Violence, on the other hand, is not only designed to intentionally cause harm or hurt, but it is meant to have a longer lasting effect on its target by using means the go above and beyond what is necessary. Violence continues even after the goal is met, just to make sure the path stays clear longer than if mere aggression were used. Leaving lasting damage also leaves memories and learning, which typically produces fear of a return to the violence.
          Unfortunately, with all three of these--hostility, aggression, violence--we see a pattern of behavior in which one human has little regard for the negative effects of their behavior on another. They each show a self-centered obsession with getting what one wants despite the costs involved. The other problem with this maltreatment is that they tend to generate endless and/or escalating cycles. Person A is hostile to Person B, so that breeds hostility in Person B and their friends toward Person A and their friends. Next, Person A starts pushing around someone from the Person B camp because the Person B stands in the way of Person A. Person B then gets a group of their B people and pushes around some Person A people. Before you know it, the damaging behavior escalates further on both sides and people start to lose sight of the origin of the conflict. It's a common plot device. Unfortunately, it's also all-too-common in reality as well. Only when someone breaks the cycle will things calm down and we can start treating each other as equals, as fellow human beings.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Abuse is Abuse, Plain and Simple, with No Excuse

Abuse is one of those elephants in the room that people don't like to talk about, or they talk about it so much that is appears to lose its actual meaning. Society has swung the pendulum so far in each direction that it has lost sight of the fact that it is all the same thing. Abuse is abuse, no matter how you try to redefine it. I am often (and I hope I will always be) appalled by the way we as a species treat others with similar genetic make-ups. Even worse than the treatment itself is the acceptance it receives. People are too often seen as property of other people and treated as such. Yes, we eliminated slavery, but many people still see others as bodies to possess and control. In just about every century families consisted of a head-of-household who felt that he or she ought to get everything they wanted out of the other household members with no questions asked. Blind obedience was expected, even in the face of blatant disregard for the well-being of people or for the damage that may be caused by selfish acts of dominance. And society turned a blind eye to this mistreatment because 1) everybody did it and/or was subject to it themselves; and 2) no one thought to put themselves in the shoes of their fellow humans to see that each of us has feelings and desires, etc.

There were many times when we swung the pendulum in the opposite direction, beginning with the revelations of theorists such as Sigmund Freud. For all the criticism of Freud and psychoanalysis, he did open our eyes to the fact that early experiences will affect our later lives. Parents began to think twice about the possible consequences of punishment or mistreatment of their children. Sadly, this very rarely applied to mistreatment of other adults. Unfortunately, the revolution was not as long-lasting as one would hope. Child abuse, spousal abuse, even common mistreatment of random people on the street, continued. We accepted it because it happened all around and "everyone needs a bit of discipline to keep them in line." People were afraid and ashamed to come forward when they were mistreated and society was fine with that because then we wouldn't have to deal with the ugliness. Swing the pendulum even further and you get the time in which I grew up, though not the personal environment.

When I was a kid, we started to educate children about abuse and told them it was okay to report it. It helped some kids come free from truly abusive environments, but it also opened up the flood waters for misuse of the system. Many parents wanted to be so progressive that they let their children run wild with no rules or guidelines, more often for fear of their child calling the police to report them than for any altruistic or philosophical reason. Now we had parents abused by their children almost as often as children abused by their parents. And once again, other abuses of adults was going unnoticed. It became a badge of honor to come from a "broken" or "abusive" home. The "my life sucks" game proliferated. We are still in this mindset today, creating a divide between true abuse cases and individuals who want to believe that they were mistreated because they didn't get the exact idealized treatment that they hoped to receive (a possible sign of narcissism). To give an example, let's say you have 2 customers at a store. Customer A is cussed out, overcharged, and has slurs thrown at them. Most likely Customer A will not return to the store and their self-esteem will take a huge hit for the mistreatment they received. Customer B is treated very well, the salesman tries to accommodate them as much as possible, but the item that they wanted is out of stock. Now Customer B goes around telling all their friends how horrible the store treated them and how much they suffered at the hands of the staff. In these extremely obvious cases, it should be easy to tell who was truly mistreated and who is trying to make a mountain out of a pancake. Reality is a lot more complicated, but I hope you begin to see the point I am trying to make.

I know all of this preamble is not my customary style for this particular blog. This is just one of those issues that bothers me on so many levels both professionally and personally. I have met too many people who claim to be abused because it is somehow in some twisted way considered a badge of honor. I have also, unfortunately, seen real abuse occur that was never dealt with because it wasn't defined as abuse by the mainstream populace. I'm going to try to create a baseline of these definitions so that, hopefully, it will be easier to spot real abuse so that real victims can receive compassion and treatment. Let's start with the most basic definition: abuse.

Abuse: (v) to misuse, mistreat, use wrongly or improperly; to treat in a harmful, injurious, or offensive way. (n) wrong or improper use, misuse; bad or improper treatment, mistreatment, maltreatment.
Already you can probably start to see how the term "abuse" can itself be misused. It would not be too hard for a selfish or narcissistic person to see a "no" as "mistreatment" simply because it's not what they wanted to hear. Not all abuse is obvious, and not all abuse is blatantly violent. Subterfuge is very difficult to identify and undermine, but we as a society are getting better about defining it.

NOTE: I will publish a future blog post on the subtleties of violence and aggression, as that is another complication to this particular topic.

The three primary categories of abuse, especially when concerned with child abuse and spousal abuse, are physical, sexual, and emotional (sometimes called psychological abuse). It's the last one that has so many subtle variations that it is not as simple to identify and it is often used as that imaginary "badge" I mentioned earlier.

Physical abuse: causing physical damage or harm to one's body. The law often refers to this type of abuse as "battery" and it can include the obvious--punching, kicking, biting, scratching, etc. Physical abuse is primarily intentional in that the main goal is to inflict pain on another person. This is also where the waters got muddy when I was a child. There was (and still is) a debate about physical punishment--spanking, whipping, smacking, etc.--used as a disciplinary device versus physical abuse. Many people took the easy route--laying a hand on your child, period, constituted abuse. Many others took the historical route--"I was smacked around to keep me in line and you don't see me having problems." The problem arose when many people used the term "discipline" as a smokescreen or license to treat others any way they pleased. Read my post on discipline to see why this leads to a misunderstanding of that concept. Sometimes it's obvious that the "discipline is abuse" such as when a person is visibly deformed by the action--burns, scars, massive bruises or broken bones. Sometimes it's not so obvious, especially when the physically aggressive episodes are few and far between. Frequency is one of the things the teachers and public service professionals are trained to look for, but waiting until "enough" damage occurs might be too late.

Sexual abuse: sexual behavior directed at an individual who does not welcome such acts; a misuse of sex for personal gain or retribution; mistreatment of an individual involving sexual acts or discussion. This is another one that gets muddied. The obvious synonym for sexual abuse is rape--unwanted sexual behavior. What most people don't realize is that, like physical abuse, all forms of sexual abuse are acts of power; they have very little to do with actual sexual urges. Sex, molestation, fondling, making sexual comments to incite discomfort, are all ways to assert one's power over one's victim. They have little to nothing to do with any emotional attachment. Lust is not love. Using sex to manipulate someone else is also a form of sexual abuse. Someone who uses sex to bribe another person into doing what they want, or who withholds sex specifically for the purpose of manipulating someone else, is engaging in sexual abuse. Anyone can be a victim of sexual abuse: male or female, old or young, spouse, child, friend, sibling, parent, known or unknown. Perpetrators of sexual abuse can also be anyone, any gender, especially if that person has some form of authority over others. The thing about all abuse, but especially sexual abuse, is that victims almost always know the perpetrator, whether the criminal is a parent or sibling, friend or coworker, or casual acquaintance. We are also much more likely to blame the victim in cases of sexual abuse than we are in situations of physical or psychological abuse, according to many years of research. The fight against sexual abuse creates the same divide mentioned earlier. We have people who are afraid to express honest emotions--hugging, kiss on the forehead, pat on the back--for fear of being reported. At the same time we have people who feel that their relationships entitle them to any actions they please. True victims often blame themselves, assuming they did something to incite the actions, and society's penchant for defensive attribution doesn't help.

Emotional (Psychological) abuse: mistreatment of another person's emotions, psychology, thought processes or perspectives; also includes acts of neglect. This is the least understood of the main types of abuse, especially because it rarely leaves physical signs, though sometimes behavioral manifestations may be observed. This category includes behaviors that toy with another's emotions, often giving someone false hope or misleading them. It also includes twisting their views of themselves or others through obvious or subtle statements, presenting misleading "facts," or outright lying. Name-calling, bullying (by today's definition; the "old school" bullying involved primarily physical abuse), gossip, rumors, teasing, ignoring, passive aggressiveness [see future blog post on aggression], and the use of "guilt trips" are all manifestations of emotional abuse. If you've ever experienced, witnessed, or used a guilt trip, then you know psychological abuse. It is a special passive-aggressive form of abuse that makes the victim feel as if they are the ones abusing the abuser. I have a special place of loathing in my soul for guilt trips because of the manipulative nature of the technique.
Sometimes a victim uses the emotional abuse to create a stronger protective shell around themselves, but even in these cases there is lasting damage. Psychological abuse, true psychological abuse, tears away at one's feelings of self-worth. It often leads a person to question their existence, sometimes their sanity. Abusers have been known to convince their victims that they (the victim) are just being "too sensitive" and are just crazy. This compounds the emotional impact further, making it more difficult for the victim to receive the treatment they need. Because psychological abuse leaves no physical trace, it is often difficult for society to accept it as a true form of mistreatment. We now understand that emotions, our personal definition of ourselves, and our grasp of reality are just as important to our physical health as our mental health. Psychoneuroimmunology was created to study the interrelationship between mental and  physical health. We found that they are inseparable. Now, is it possible for someone to want to earn a badge of honor in this area as well? Of course. It is possible, and it has occurred too often, for an individual to perceive a denial--a "no" to a request--as a form of psychological abuse. Remember those kids who threatened to call the cops on their parents if they raised a hand to them? Neglect is often the siren song for these same types of people to call emotional abuse on someone. Of course, their idea of neglect is being denied something that they only wanted, not necessarily needed. [See my post on motivation for the distinction between wants and needs.] True neglect occurs when someone is ignored, when their needs are not met, when they are forgotten all too often. Neglect takes a long time to be noticed by others, unfortunately, and the longer it occurs, the greater the damage. With neglect, one experiences emotional damage long before the physical damage is felt.

I still do not understand why it is fashionable to be the false victim of abuse. This sick desire to be special for negative reasons always saddens me and angers me at the same time because it takes attention away from the real cases of abuse. I suppose it makes it easier to live with the disappointments or failures in one's life if you have "abuse" to blame. That said, I do believe that there are far too many real cases of abuse, all kinds, going on in this world. The cases that are not stereotypical or obvious are the hardest ones because they fall through the cracks too easily, leading to more damage for the victims in the long-run. Many real victims will keep their abuse hidden forever (or at least for the majority of their lives) in their hearts because it is too painful to dwell upon and it is shameful to admit that someone else mistreated you. It makes you feel like less than a human. Dwelling on it, harping on it, also makes it more difficult to move past it. There is a middle-ground in which the abuse is confronted, dealt with, and then let go. Neither hiding it nor flaunting it will provide any beneficial results for anyone. When we treat our fellow humans as humans, when we show them the kind of mutual respect that we want and deserve, then we will significantly reduce the abuse in this world.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Do You Feel Sorry for Me or Do You Feel My Pain?

What kind of emotions do you experience when you see or hear about someone experiencing a misfortune? What thoughts run through your mind? Many people believe that expressing sympathy will help the unfortunate soul feel better. The truth of the matter is that sympathy is very superficial. There is a deeper sentiment that, when expressed, indicates to the suffering party that you care on a higher level, that you may actually want to do more than present mere words of "I'm sorry" to them. Let's look at the difference between these two expressions.

Sympathy: to feel sorry for an individual; to express pity or sorrow for another's misfortune. You see, when we sympathize, we do express feelings for the individual, but we also reserve a little bit of relief for ourselves. It's the idea of "Man, it sucks to be you. Sorry dude. Thank goodness that's not me." We are not completely heartless in that we acknowledge the troubles another faces. But at the same time we are grateful we are not going through the same things. This creates a barrier between the sympathizer and the person in hardship. Many people who receive sympathy can intuitively, sometimes consciously, sense the superficiality of the sentiment. Rather than help them feel better, sometimes mere sympathy makes matters worse. Not many people like others to feel pity for them; it is a major blow to one's pride and self-esteem. Sympathy isn't all bad. Although superficial, it can convey some level of care between individuals, which is sometimes better than nothing at all.

Empathy: to feel the emotions of another; to understand the feelings of another person from their perspective. Empathy takes the notion of feeling for someone to the next level. You not only understand, on an intellectual level, how much emotion the person is experiencing, but you also feel it yourself. Your heart aches when they ache. You are sad when they are sad. Their tears of joy are reflected in your happiness. You know exactly what the pain, trouble, turmoil, etc. that they feel is because you either experienced it yourself or you are capable of putting yourself in their shoes and feeling it with them, from their perspective. With empathy, there is no sentiment of "Glad it's not me." Instead, because you feel what the other person feels, you may become swept up in their emotions. You are also more likely to help them. After all, if you feel their pain, then lessening it for them will reduce it for you. With sympathy, you are free to walk away and let others solve their own problems while you get to look like a good guy for doing nothing. With empathy, you are in the middle of the mix so you not only get the dark side, but you also get to revel in the light side when things improve.

You can see the distinction between an empath and a sympath in the characters of Deanna Troi (Star Trek the Next Generation) and Emma Frost (Marvel comics). Counselor Troi, especially in the first couple seasons of TNG, not only sensed the emotions of others around her, she was sometimes overwhelmed by them. This could occasionally lead to emotional overload for her if the feelings were especially strong. With this empathic ability, she was just the right person to fill the role of counselor, as she would be highly motivated to help others heal and find happiness. Emma, on the other hand, was able to detect the emotions of others but she rarely lost her calm demeanor. She typically kept outside the emotional realm of others around her, creating a barrier between her own emotions and those of others. She knew what others felt, but she did not experience it directly herself. In this way she was able to manipulate others around her without losing control of herself, giving her the upper hand and allowing her to rise to power or hide away when she needed to.

Is there anything wrong with sympathy? Not really. But know that empathy--to truly feel what others feel and not just because you want to win the "my life sucks" game--is more helpful in the long-run, though it may be a bit more draining on you than sympathy.