The words “empathy” and “sympathy” are often used interchangeably and yet their actual meanings are very different. The problem comes when people try to explain that difference. I use empathy all the time in my work but I try not to use sympathy at all. There is nothing at all wrong with showing sympathy but empathy requires a greater level of understanding – let me try to explain.
Earlier this week I was talking to a friend who had hurt her back – she was having difficulty bending, lifting, and even getting dressed. I was less than helpful.
My first response was to say “oh no, poor you”, which is ok as sympathy goes (although a bit patronising and slightly tinged with pity). But then I followed it up with the dreaded “I twinged my back this morning too.” I was a bit cross with myself and couldn’t quite work out why I had said it – the conversation was not about me.
On reflection I realised that I was offering a fairly common (but not entirely helpful) type of sympathy. I was trying to understand by putting myself in her position – in this instance I had twinged my back and it was, fleetingly, very painful so I was, somewhat clumsily, saying “I have experienced your pain and I understand.” I was looking inside myself for understanding of her situation.
But the truth is I haven’t experienced her pain, I have experienced mine. If I was to show empathy rather than sympathy I would have to try to understand what it is like to be her in her particular situation, only then could I truly understand. This also applies to both positive and negative emotions.
Imagine a situation where a friend’s father has died.
Sympathy requires you to understand that your friend might feel sad and bereft. You express your sorrow for her, maybe hug her and allow her to cry on your shoulder. This is sympathy at its best and is a loving and appropriate way of responding. Sympathy stems, in part, from understanding how people might generally feel in such a situation and acting accordingly.
Empathy needs a deeper level of understanding. It requires you to understand what it is like to be this particular person in this particular situation and not to make assumptions – not everyone is sad when a parent dies, it can often be a confusing time full of mixed emotions; guilt, anger, sadness, relief etc. It requires you to listen deeply and to feel deeply too. If you are being empathetic you will feel sad/confused etc. with your friend not for her.
Empathy is not about cheering someone up or helping them to feel better, it is simply about joining them in their world and working hard to understand and share that experience and, in some instances, holding their hand until they feel ready to move. Quite frankly, it is one of the greatest gifts you can give to someone who is struggling.
So, next time you are tempted to say “I know how you feel”, remember that you probably don’t. If you don’t know what to say try listening instead of talking. And yes, I will be taking a big, healthy dose of my own medicine this week.