Sympathy vs. Empathy: What’s The Difference?

The practice of being sympathetic is embedded in our nature as humans to offer our condolences to someone who is experiencing harm or pain in their lives. Think about it, if someone were to come up to you and tell them how bad of a day they’ve had or something bad has happened to them, your natural response would be “I’m so sorry to hear that” or “That sucks” or something along those lines… right? This is you being sympathetic, but what does it mean when someone says to be empathetic towards these people?

What is Sympathy?

Most of us understand the concept of sympathy, which, by dictionary definition, means “feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else’s misfortune.” Now, the way this definition is phrased, it doesn’t sound like what you think it would sound, right? I’ve always thought of it as a good step to take to reach out to a certain someone who’s experiencing something difficult in their lives and to let them know that you pity them.

It’s easy to be sympathetic towards them because it only requires you to be sorry for something that’s happening to them and that’s the end of the story. This is common amongst us as a human race and has become apart of something we do naturally when we’re approached with people who are hurting. Usually, we use phrases like “It wasn’t your fault,” or “I think you should do this,” or something along those lines. Sometimes we even one-up other people with our own shortcoming to make it as if we’re hurting just as much as they are.

What is Empathy?

Now, prior to me going to college, I didn’t even know what empathy was or how it worked. I’ve heard of the word, but never quite understood what it meant. To make things simple, empathy is like going down the rabbit hole with the person experiencing pain or sorrow and holding their hand. It’s like holding the bucket for your friend who’s had a little too much to drink that one night out.

Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another person. You’re not there to correct them, you’re not there to say “I’m sorry” for anything. That person is in a stage of hurt and you’re there to find a connection with that person to better understand the state they’re in.

What’s The Difference between the Two?

In the video link below, research professor Dr. Brené Brown talks about the strengths of empathy and the impact it can have on people who are going through something challenging for them. This video does an excellent job in laying out the power of empathy and throws in some subtle humor as well!

It’s fairly easy to understand the concept of empathy, but I’ve found that actually being empathetic is a lot more difficult than it seems to be. Remember, you’re not there to pity them. You’re there to connect with them emotionally and spiritually as a way to make them feel like you hear them and you understand them. Using phrases like “I can’t imagine what that’s like” or even just a simple “I don’t know what that’s like, but I’m so glad you told me” lets them know that they’re being heard and that they’re talking to someone who sees the pain they’re going through by connecting to their feelings and understanding that hurt they’re experiencing.

A Penny for Your Thoughts

I’ve tried to keep this article fairly short because it’s a topic that’s pretty straightforward, but for those who are like me and don’t particularly enjoy reading things that are extensively long, here’s the article in review:

We all use sympathy more than empathy because it’s easier to send your condolences to someone and have that be the end of it. Empathy, on the other hand, can be a little more difficult to use but is a lot more effective because it helps to establish a connection between you and the other person. You’ve heard the phrase “if it were easy, everyone would be doing it” sometime in your life before and this is a perfect example of that. What we give to others we experience in ourselves and from a personal experience of trying to be more empathetic, it’s a tool I’m thankful to have in my back pocket.

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