Empathy vs. Sympathy

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When someone is going through suffering, or trauma of any kind, we have a reaction to what they are going through. Our reaction externally, can have a big effect on how that person responds to us or how this will make them feel. In order to fully hold space for someone who is sharing something with us, the goal is to get ourselves to a place or empathy or compassion.

But before we can master this, we must understand what empathy is and how it differs from sympathy.

What is sympathy?
By definition, sympathy is feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else’s misfortune. What sympathy is not, is a shared perspective or understanding of what someone is going through. While a person can convey care and concern both physically and verbally with sympathy, it does not convey a shared emotion with the sufferer. For example: “I care about your suffering.”

What is empathy?
This is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. That’s how it is defined in text, but what it really means is to recognize a person’s emotions, and share them. See the situation from their perspective, and in turn share the emotions in that moment. For example: “I feel your suffering.”

There’s an amazing animated short video by Brené Brown, that we’re particularly fond of, that perfectly illustrates the differences between sympathy and empathy.

If we want to take this one step further, the final phase of response to another is to have compassion, which is a more engaged response than empathy alone. Compassion involves not only sharing the emotions of another, but with a desire to alleviate the suffering as well. For example: “I want to relieve your suffering.”

“Compassion is a feeling of empathy for ourselves and for others. It is the emotional response to suffering, and it motivates a desire to alleviate that suffering. When we are hurt is when it is hardest to be compassionate.” — Kim Barthel from ‘Conversations with A Rattlesnake’ 

If you enjoy learning about this topic, you may find these blogs interesting as well: Why having compassion matters and Hurt people, hurt people.

— Written by Amber Craig

 

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