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Sympathy and empathy, aren’t they the same thing?

 

I recently saw a video by Brene Brown about the difference between the two. It had such a profound effect on me that I began wondering about all the times when I had offered sympathy as opposed to empathy – a mistake I’m sure we’ve all made.

 

I would often sympathize with friends who were going through romantic struggles, knowing that it must be awful for them and wanting to help but never really ‘feeling’ the emotions they were experiencing. This left me understanding their position intellectually though unable to relate on an emotional level.

 

So I vowed to shun sympathy in favor of empathy, knowing that having previously seen sympathy and empathy as the same, I had caused my relationships to suffer rather than thrive.

 

Throughout this series I will outline the critical difference between sympathy and empathy and examine the ways we can develop our empathy so that it nurtures and strengthens our relationships, fostering even greater levels of compassion towards others.

 

The nature of sympathy

 

In Dictionary.com’s article titled ‘Sympathy vs. Empathy’ it captures today’s meaning of sympathy perfectly and reports that:

 

‘Nowadays sympathy is largely used to convey commiseration, pity, or feelings of sorrow for someone who is experiencing misfortune.’

 

As you can see, the very nature of sympathy is distant. It speaks of us being observers to others sorrow and feeling bad about their pain. For someone on the receiving end of sympathy, it can make them feel even more isolated, and, if those suffering are prideful, they might even feel offended by such sentiments.

 

The nature of empathy

 

In Dictionary.com’s same article it mentions today’s meaning of empathy and reports that:

 

‘[empathy] is now most often used to refer to the capacity or ability to imagine oneself in the situation of another, thereby vicariously experiencing the emotions, ideas, or opinions of that person.’

 

Empathy by contrast is personal. It gets in amongst the others pain and feels it right alongside them. Rather than isolating the person suffering, it comforts them, showing them that they are fully understood and reminding them that they are not alone.

 

The different types of empathy

 

Perspective Taking

 

This is predicting the thoughts of another by imagining ourselves in their position.

 

Cognitive Empathy

 

This is not feeling the others emotion but understanding that you need to communicate emphatically. It is especially helpful to engage with cognitive empathy and vocalize this to your enemies or those placing unrealistic demands on you as it is very powerful in resolving conflict.

 

Emotional Empathy

 

This is when we feel what the other person is feeling.

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