Monday, February 10, 2014

Sympathy, Empathy, and the Key to Being Helpful

In a recent conversation, my husband asked me what was wrong with 'sympathy.' I began my spiel on sympathy versus empathy from my hotline training days, but it all began to seem a bit pointless. It became clear that he was less interested in a lesson on semantics and much more interested in how to be kind and helpful. Of course, my answer to, "Which is more kind and helpful: sympathy or empathy?" was, "It depends."

Hmm...I think I'll amend that to, "Usually empathy, but it depends."

Sympathy is a reaction to what someone else is going through or feeling based on our own experience with or how we think we'd feel in a similar situation. We typically think of sympathy as a reaction to a negative experience, for example, feeling sad because a friend was fired from her job. Experiencing that kind of pain and sadness is uncomfortable, so the natural reaction is to help your friend feel better. Perhaps you'd take her out for a drink, send flowers, or remind her of all the reasons that she's better off not being at that job, all in the name of easing her pain.

Sympathy can be boiled down to, "I feel bad seeing you in pain and I want to make it better." That's not so bad, right? At best, sympathy is a win-win. I can certainly think back to difficult times in my life (disappointments, break-ups) when kind, sympathetic gestures were most welcome. It definitely has its place.

At worst, however, sympathy can be experienced as pity or send the message, "I can't deal with your pain, so feel better, please."

Empathy, on the other hand, is all about putting aside your own feelings and experiencing the situation from another's perspective. In the case of your fired friend, it would involve listening to her, sitting with her pain and not trying to fix it or make it go away. Empathy creates strong, healing connections, but it can be uncomfortable and emotionally taxing.

Rather than have a sympathy/empathy debate with yourself any time you are faced with supporting someone you care about through a difficult time, I offer the following for consideration:

  • Is this helping the other person or is it helping me? 
  • Is this something the other person needs or is this what I need? 
  • Is this lessening the other person's pain or is it lessening my pain?  
  • How full are my own emotional reserves and how much can I give? 

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  1. I just finished the audio of Brene Brown's The Gifts of Vulnerability and she did a segment on that. Was kind of eye opening. I knew there was a difference but couldn't have articulated it. Sympathy yes but not the difference.

    I like your part that it has it's place because I started thinking how do you do empathy every time? Should I NEVER feel sympathy? It's good for something isn't it? But yes, as long as the pity party doesn't happen and you don't dismiss someone. She also had a cool video on one of her posts about it:

  2. Yes, Rayna! That video was actually what started my conversation with Jason about the whole sympathy/empathy thing. And 'The Gifts of Vulnerability' is on my (ever-growing!) reading list - hoping to get to it this year!