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Sympathy Vs. Empathy; How Knowing The Difference Could Save Your Relationships – Part One

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.


Compassionate empathy


This is desiring to help as a result of sharing their feelings or ’emotional empathy’.


Whilst cognitive, emotional and compassionate empathy are helpful, perspective taking can be detrimental.


For example, my friend told me she was having relationship problems. I immediately went to how I would feel and how I would tackle the situation. What I hadn’t considered – and what perspective taking fails to account for – is that I was different to my friend. We have different temperaments and what makes me stressed and low doesn’t necessarily make her stressed and low. I laughed at myself when I realized my empathy had been misguided, as she told me how she was glad this issue had arisen so she could deal with it early on in the relationship.


Whilst cognitive empathy is helpful it has the potential to come across as insincere.


On the other hand, emotional empathy and its close partner, compassionate empathy, are helpful and serve to comfort those in pain, with compassionate empathy often welcomed.


A useful example of someone trying to help out of sympathy might be to send flowers when someone has died, or a sympathy card with how sorry you are that the person has passed. Those sympathizing might think practically and bring them home cooked meals or offer to help with the funeral planning if the person who lost a loved one was close to them.


Contrastingly, when acting out of empathy in that same situation, one would actually feel the persons loss and reach out to see them, actively listening to their pain and openly sharing their own stories of similar hurt when appropriate. They would offer much greater levels of emotional support and understanding.


Whilst they might also bring them home cooked meals or offer to help with the funeral planning, they would do so only once an emotional connection relating to the situation had been established because the empath would emotionally understand how offering such help – when not close – could damage the pride of the person effected by the loss.  Likewise, a card from an empathic person would probably speak more about their own (the senders) loss, so the recipient felt their experience was shared and they felt less alone.


Further Resources


‘Empathy: Why It Matters and How To Get It’ by Roman Krznaric


This book describes how at our core we are all empathic by nature and examines how a more empathic society benefits the world. Interviewing groundbreaking leaders of various fields he reveals the six habits of the highly empathic.


‘The Art of Empathy: A Complete Guide To Life’s Most Essential Skill’ by Karla McLaren


A comprehensive how-to guide on how to increase our empathy, complete with chapters on improving family, workplace and intimate relationships.


Stay tuned – next Monday we will examine the many life-enhancing benefits of empathy and look at the ‘enemies of empathy’ and how to overcome them.


What was your most powerful experience of empathy towards another? What type of empathy was it and how did it make you feel? Reflecting back how do you think your empathy helped? Please share your thoughts in the comments below to gain encouragement, insight and support from our community, we’d love to hear from you.

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