Sympathy vs. Empathy

Today in my Inner Peace group we talked about vulnerability, which ultimately led us to a discussion about sympathy versus empathy.

Everyone literally cringed at the mention of the word sympathy.  We shared how we felt when people had a sympathetic response to our life’s challenges and stories.  How it made us feel terrible when others felt “sorry” for us and our life experiences. The group defined sympathy as “pity,” a response that causes us to feel uncomfortable and looked down upon by the other person.  It usually sounds like: “I’m sorry for you” and “At least…”

No one wants to hear when they’re struggling phrases like: At least you have….or at least you’re not a poor child in Africa… That doesn’t help.  It usually causes us to feel even worse about feeling bad, because then we’re not even grateful for what we have…and that makes us feel awful! And it spirals downwards from there.  Ugh.

It can be really challenging to know how to respond when someone shares something that’s intimate and deep.  For example, If someone shares that they recently had a death in their family, we often don’t really know what to say.  So we feel bad and say stuff like…I’m so sorry…. But sometimes that’s not what the person needs to hear in that moment.  One person in the group responded to this saying with frustration: “Why are you apologizing, did you kill him?!”

While that’s maybe a little extreme, it’s true that we oftentimes don’t know how to respond in a way that the people we care about can hear. Which is really hard because we want the person to understand how much we care.

That’s where Empathy comes in.

Empathy is when we place ourselves in another person’s shoes and  imagine being them.  We relate to the situation from their eyes without judgement.  This action creates sincere connection and helps the other person feel heard, understood, and cared about. 

Responding empathetically means being honest when we aren’t sure what to say.  As Brene Brown says, often the best response is: “I don’t know what to say, but I am really glad you told me.”

The short video below perfectly illustrates Sympathy versus Empathy.

Empathy and connection is a learned skill, and it’s not always easy.  I would love to hear your thoughts and advice about how you show empathy or any experiences where you felt seen and heard.. or didn’t!