Sympathy and empathy. Two different words with very different meanings. Especially to those of us in the chronic illness community. The first nine years I battled Crohn’s disease, I kept my diagnosis as private as possible. Only close friends, family and co-workers knew what I was going through behind closed doors. I did this because I didn’t want sympathy.
I didn’t want people to look at me differently. I didn’t want to be judged or looked down upon. I didn’t want to be viewed as “less than” by my peers. When you choose to suffer in silence you close yourself off to support, you close yourself off to empathy.
Since sharing my patient journey in November 2014 with the public, I’ve realized the power of empathy. How it feels when those close to you and complete strangers reach out to offer support, words of advice and choose to show compassion. By definition, empathy means, “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.” The definition of sympathy is “feelings of pity and sorrow for someone’s misfortune.”
When we choose to share our story, we open ourselves up to not only support, but criticism. People who believe we are advocates as a way of seeking attention. People who try and dumb down our personal experiences because they feel we share to get pity. People who believe we want others to feel sorry for us. This could not be further from the truth.
I share my experiences with Crohn’s disease as a way to inspire and educate.
The last thing I want is for someone else to feel sorry for me. There is no reason to act like I have it worse than you or that you feel bad I’m not “healthy.” I am healthy, I just have a chronic disease that makes my life a little more challenging than yours. The challenges Crohn’s has brought into my life have been difficult, emotional and trying—but with each setback, comes a much stronger comeback. I am stronger and better for the trials I have been faced with.
I don’t want your sympathy. I want your empathy. I want you to reach out and see how I’m doing, because you genuinely care. I want you to show interest when I bring up my disease, rather than change the subject…or walk away. The lack of empathy and disinterest hurts more than anything. It shows you who’s a surface friend…and who is a real one.
Think about how you’d like to be treated and talked to, if you dealt with an invisible, chronic illness that wreaked havoc on your body without warning. A disease that you do all you can to control with lifestyle and medication. A disease of constant unknowns.
When you conversate with those in the chronic illness community—think before you speak and please choose to be empathetic, rather than sympathetic. Your efforts may seem minimal to you, but they mean more than you know.