On Sympathy vs. Empathy: the tendency to distance and how to stay in contact.


By Aiya Leah Staller,  Art Therapy Master’s student at Naropa University

Service-Learning in Cambodia provides a unique opportunity to be a guest in another person’s country.  We are asking other people to share their stories with us through art, as we claim to help them by providing art therapy techniques.  What does it mean to be a “helper”? And how do we know if this is actually helpful? The image that is often portrayed in the U.S. culture is one of the “white savior” (do check out the link if you haven’t heard of this!) who comes in to help the less fortunate in countries that are not white. This idea pervades many of our psyche’s whether we want it to or not.  It is part of the U.S. culture and us; because most of us were raised here.  It may not always take the form of a white privileged person being a “savior” but there is usually some kind of power dynamic at play that is important to be aware of.  Often U.S. citizens believe that we are “saving” people in other countries, but this is simply not true. It can be a problematic belief that keeps us out of connection.  We may not be enacting it, but without being aware of this tendency, we are at risk of perpetuating it.  How do we stay accountable and challenge these belief systems? It is necessary for us to look critically at what our role and responsibility is in another country.  I know that many of us grapple with this responsibility and what it means to really be of service to another person, let alone another country.

It is our job to “unlearn” our cultural programming.  As students, we are learning about Cambodia, a new world to many of us.  Meeting people we have never met. Anticipating developing relationships. Wondering how best to serve. Anxious about what it all means. Excited to connect, and afraid to connect. Learning. We aren’t saviors. There is little that we can do to fix the issues that are happening in Cambodia for the people there. Trying to “fix” someone, or another culture, automatically sends a message that there is something wrong with them. We aren’t trying to fix anyone. I propose instead, that we are wanting to to meet them. To connect. To partner on this path together. Real healing comes from connections. From sharing an experience together. From being in the dirty, gritty, painful, scary, and lonely places that most people avoid. It’s about sharing joy and sorrow together. It’s making art together and sitting with someone. It’s not knowing what to do while we hurt with them, laugh with them, or cry with them.  It’s about contact and connection.  It’s about accountability to ourselves and others to be vulnerable in a way that is safe, though potentially scary, for all involved.  And it may be more about us and opening to our own cultural wounds through service and learning.

Brene Brown, a vulnerability researcher who many of you may have seen or heard of, talks about the difference between Sympathy and Empathy. Katy Davis animates one of Brene’s talks on this topic in an easy to understand cartoon which illustrates how we wish to be with those we meet.

This relates to our work in Cambodia.  Our responsibility to meet people where they are at.  To keep the connection alive.  It’s about connecting to our own feelings and staying with them, owning them, and staying in contact with the people we are hoping to be of service to.   For many of us, as future therapists, we are learning how to climb into the caves that people have, climb into dark cultural caves, climb into our own caves, and sit in the dark without pulling away.  It’s pulling out a flashlight and exploring the realities that are sometimes difficult to see.  It’s looking at our own assumptions so we can actually see what is in front of us. It is staying present with whatever is happening in the world.  It is a practice of staying in connection.  On a larger scale, this project is a practice in staying in connection with the people we have partnered with in Cambodia.  We are friends, allies, partners, and human beings forming a connection together and committing to not turn away, to distance, or to abandon.  As students, we have a huge responsibility and great deal of unknowing.   We really are going to be guests in another person’s land.   Their willingness to welcome us in is such a gift to us.   I’m not sure how we can express our gratitude.  From the stories that I have heard from past trips, all I can think to say is, like the bear in the cave says, “I don’t even know what to say right now, I’m just so glad you told me.”

Service-Learning trips and Social Justice organizations often struggle with ways to stay accountable and ethical while providing services and learning.  Please feel free to share your own explorations around this topic.  How do we stay connected with Empathy vs. distancing ourselves through Sympathy?

We would love to hear from you.

For other blogs on Cultural Competency vs Cultural Humility, check out Daniel Rifkin’s earlier blog on our site as well.



Blog by Emma Wallingford


JAMBODIA: A Benefit show for Cambodian Living Arts is TONIGHT!!! Come down, support the cause. We’ll have live art, necklaces for sale, prayer flags for you to personalize and send to Cambodian Living Arts, and of course, GOOD MUSIC ALL NIGHT! Drop Switch, Shoot to Please, Rhyme Progression, Matty Mac. All proceeds from the concert  will go to CLA and the sale of the necklaces to NCAS-I! Become educated on this cause, watch the video for more information. The people of Cambodia humbled me and changed me, never have I met more genuine and kind people in my life, they truly deserve all the respect and happiness in the world. They need to revive their culture, and bring back music, arts and dance into their country! That’s what Cambodian Living Arts strives to do 🙂http://buff.ly/NANUcF http://buff.ly/NAO0Rn