DELONY: Empathy vs sympathy
By JOHN DELONY
Empathy and sympathy are the two ways we respond to the suffering of those around us. But there is one crucial difference: sympathy is grateful someone else’s pain, but empathy is choosing feel the pain with them. Sympathy says, “I care about you,” while empathy says, “It hurts you.
Sympathy is being aware and sensitive to the needs and suffering of others. It is recognizing, even honoring, the reality of a difficult situation. But even if you express sadness, you still have an emotional limit around you so that you don’t feel what the victim is feeling.
Empathy is understanding and vicariously experiencing what others are going through. It’s sitting in their pain. It takes creativity to be empathetic, because you have to imagine yourself in the other person’s situation and feel the heaviness of your burden.
What is better?
Sympathy and empathy are both important relationship and emotional skills and are useful in different contexts. However, empathy is a must have for relationships because empathy fuels connection. It is not enough for those who are dear to us to recognize our experiences. It’s not enough for people to know about us. People don’t live off Wikipedia pages. We aspire to to share our experiences.
Empathy is needed, but it’s exhausting. It is the commitment. It’s a deep connection. As citizens of a wired world, we live under an onslaught of horrific news, sad stories and chaotic events that are beyond our control. We cannot practice empathy for every person on the planet, we will end up exhausting ourselves.
Sympathy can be helpful. It allows us to learn more about the oppression, pain and tragedy that plagues our world, and then make decisions about how we can intentionally influence our community. Sympathy ensures that our eyes are open and aware, and it informs our actions.
But when it comes to the people we need to love and care for – our family, friends, neighbors, coworkers, the church community – empathy is essential.
Empathy, like other relationship skills, is a choice. It is choosing to sit next to hurt people and be silent. You can only learn empathy by listening to other people’s stories and witnessing their pain. But it is also something that you can learn and practice. Here are some tools to add to your belt:
Practicing empathy starts with showing yourself. Throughout my career, I have had the privilege of presenting myself with people in the darkest times of their lives. I sat with parents who had just discovered their dead child in the next room. I have sat down with women whose husbands would never come through the door again. I have met parents of young people who had committed suicide.
There is nothing to say at such times. But the presence is all. When people are breathless, they need to feel that they are not alone. To arrive. Hug me tight. Sit down on the couch. Go to the funeral. Buy the plane ticket. When people are in mourning, they don’t need your advice or your explanation. They need your presence.
Be a good listener
Empathetic people are good listeners. They look people in the eye and nod their heads. They ask follow-up questions. And they are not in turn listening to tell a version 2.0 of the story that this person is telling.
When you’re in a conversation with someone you love, be intentional with your focus. Demonstrate physically and verbally that the person you are with is the most important thing in your world at this time.
The mirror is the act of reflecting someone to themselves. It’s a great way to help people feel seen and validated. If your partner comes home and tells a story about their terrible boss, you might say something like, “This is awful. Looks like you are feeling tired and frustrated. I can understand why you would be discouraged.
Connect with people using phrases such as “Tell me how you feel” or “Tell me more about it”. Both statements are invitations for the person you are with to connect on a deeper level.
Iit’s not your job to fix everything
Another way to practice empathy is to resist the urge to go into problem-solving mode. Most of us think manner too high of ourselves, and are manner too quick to give our opinion. People rarely need our rants on what they should did, or what you would have done.
Most people, most of the time, just need to be heard. When we tell people how to solve their problems, they will only feel incompetent or out of control.
Don’t make comparisons
The experience of tragedy is confusing and disorienting. One of the things we often do when we are in pain is try to make sense of our pain by comparing our situation with someone who is better or worse than us. This is called comparative bereavement. It is useless and damaging.
When someone is in pain, don’t report the positive side. Don’t remind them that things could be worse. They will understand this over time, but it comes later in the grieving process. It’s a fat a: Not Tell them about a time when you (or your cousin’s roommate) experienced a much bigger tragedy. Just acknowledge their pain.
Yes, you read that right. Getting lost in a good romance could make you better in your relationships. Stories allow us to practice empathy because they emotionally transport you into someone else’s experience. Fiction gives us a window into what the characters think and feel, and how they treat the world. A good book can be a reality simulator for real life.
Remember that empathy is a skill that lasts a lifetime. And we are all in the process.
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Jean Delony is a mental health expert with a PhD in Counseling Training and Supervision and Higher Education Administration from Texas Tech University. Prior to joining Ramsey Solutions in 2020, John worked as a senior executive, professor and researcher at several universities. He has also spent two decades intervening in crisis situations, supporting people who have suffered serious trauma. Now as Ramsey’s personality, he teaches about relationships and emotional well-being.