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Empathy versus Sympathy in Hearing Loss

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Empathy versus Sympathy in Hearing Loss

Anyone who suffers from hearing loss has had the same experience when meeting new people socially or in conducting business. When we don’t hear what’s being said, we wonder if we should ask the person to repeat what they’ve said or tell them about our hearing loss.

I’m always reluctant to mention my lack of hearing to a stranger. Usually I ask someone to repeat, hoping I’ll get what they are saying the second time around. In deciding whether or not to bring up my hearing loss, I gage the situation. Am I going to have to talk with this person multiple times? Is the new person I’m meeting going to become a regular in my life?

Business situations usually go one of two ways, the person I’m speaking with either politely repeats what they’ve said or they give me a glazed, what’s-wrong-with-you look. I’m never quite sure what to say at that point. I do sometimes tell strangers that I have hearing loss and most nod politely, some even say I’m sorry.

In social situations, my husband often solves the problem for me. There have been countless times when he has found me struggling to hear so he steps in to help out, repeating what the person said. By that time, it’s clear I have a problem so I usually tell the person I’m speaking with what’s going on with me. Reactions vary. Some people say, I’m sorry to hear that. Sometimes they tell me about their own hearing problems. I’m always amazed at how many other people wear hearing aids.

Then there are the sweethearts, people who understand that anyone with hearing loss needs help. These men and women take me under their wing, making sure that I participate in conversation. They bring me into their circle, introducing me around, telling others of my hearing problem. When they see me looking blank-eyed because I didn’t get it, they repeat or make another person repeat. I don’t have to say a word. These hearing friends help out of compassion. They are truly kind souls. I love these people.

How people react to your hearing loss boils down to sympathy versus empathy. There’s nothing wrong with an expression of sympathy. To hear ‘I’m sorry’ at least acknowledges that the person expressing these words cares. But it’s those who possess empathy that mean the most to me. Folks with a natural ability to understand your predicament. They shell out kindness without being over solicitous. They make you feel like you matter.

As I meander through the hearing world, I’m grateful for the many friends that I have who care about me, who help me, who see to it that I’m not lost in the verbiage flying around me. These hearing friends invite me out, never worrying over the fact that I can’t always hear them. They are wonderful, kind, and generous. People you don’t want to live without.

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Linda Bilodeau

I’ve grappled with hearing loss since 1978. Through it all, I’ve faced periods of denial, acceptance, curiosity, trust and hope. But more often than not, I’ve felt annoyed, angry and frightened. I’ve encountered despair, loneliness and envy. I’ve experienced panic attacks. I’ve met understanding people, kind souls who helped me a great deal and others who thought I had nothing short of an invisible plague. As a way of coming to terms with my hearing loss, I’ve decided to put my feelings about my disability down on paper. My hope is to better understand myself and perhaps you’ll find a little something in my meanderings that will help you, too.
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