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I’ve been thinking about the differences between empathy and sympathy for a while after the topic came up in some INTJ groups last year. Then I saw this lovely TED short by Brene Brown, which is of course both thought provoking and informative.

INTJs have a great capacity for empathy. Sure, I know it goes against all of those loner/socially unaware/unfeeling stereotypes, but bear with me. Thanks to our Fi (introverted feeling) we are able to easily put ourselves into someone’s shoes. Using our imagination, soon we are caught up with ‘what would I do in that situation’, which can happen one on one, but also with things we’ve read, heard, and seen. As an HSP, this is often amplified, and you end up being haunted by those thoughts, unable to stop them.

In the video, it talks about how important it is when feeling empathy, to be non-judgemental, and communicate back to the person suffering that you understand their pain and are there for them.  However, unless it is someone who we are happy being open and vulnerable with, this is a stumbling block for INTJs. We quickly find ourselves feeling totally overwhelmed with empathy for that person, and instead of reflecting that back to them, we keep it to ourselves, putting up our stone walls (often trapping those thoughts inside with us too).  It’s usually then that we pipe up saying “I’ve got an idea!” or “Here’s a solution!”

And then we get told we are totally unsympathetic, and in a way we are.  Our tendency to barrel along, already thinking two steps ahead of everyone makes it seem like we don’t care. In fact, we do care, we just want to *solve* the problem right now and not talk about it…again.

Sympathy for INTJs often seems to be the next step up from small talk.  It’s expected of you, but it feels totally empty.  We’ve all heard people who coo “Aw Bless” as a catch all sympathetic phrase, but that’s just as meaningful as the obligatory “Hi, HowAreYou”, when someone meets you. It doesn’t mean anything. When I am in a lot of pain, I don’t really want someone to pop up with “Aw bless, at least you don’t have xyz”, I prefer it when they go “It really sucks when that happens, hope it settles down soon”. It’s a subtle difference, but one that is important to recognise. By acknowledging the pain, you aren’t downplaying it, and you are creating a connection instead of a throwaway comment.

Our lack of sympathy is probably how some of the stereotypes come about. It seems that INTJ women tend to have a limited amount of sympathy and we get to the ‘let’s sort this out’ or ‘stfu’ stage a lot faster than other people, which is even more noticeable because we are women. By our very gender, we are expected to see discussing and airing of feelings as a natural bonding activity.  In fact, men are often told in those helpful ‘how to understand women’ articles, ‘let a woman express her feelings, you don’t need to offer a solution, let her talk’. No wonder we are in a no win situation!

So what can we do?
I don’t see our lack of sympathy as a problem.  Sure, just like small talk, we need to be sympathetic at times, but it’s more important to know what to do with our empathy as it’s a far more authentic way of communicating.
At the moment, feeling empathy comes quite naturally, what we need is to know what to do with it.  Going back to Brene’s video, she says “Empathy fuels connection, Sympathy drives disconnection”, and that part of being empathetic is to take their perspective, don’t judge, and recognise what you are both feeling.

The most important piece of advice is at the end of the video.  “Empathy is feeling *with* people”. So as INTJs, we need to open up and make that connection. Only then we can go into Problem Solver mode.

Finally, as HSPs we also need to practice letting go.  It’s so easy when we are empathising to not let go of those feelings. Often simply recognising what you are doing is enough, making a mental effort to put it aside.  I find that it helps to write it down and put a thick line under it.  It doesn’t mean you are unfeeling, you just need to distance yourself for the sake of your own sanity.

Next Time – HSPs, Empaths and Empathy Goggles