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  • Deborah Moyer

Empathy vs. Sympathy: Which One is Healthier?

Do you know the difference between expressing empathy vs. expressing sympathy?

Many people think they are one and the same, but they really aren’t.

I was having a conversation with a friend who had just experienced an especially difficult family situation. I wanted to help her feel better, but sending a sympathy card just didn’t seem like enough. I wanted to do more.

When we express sympathy to someone, what does that really mean? Is there a better way to communicate a deeper and more meaningful message to someone in pain than just saying that we sympathize?

Why don’t we use the term empathize instead?

Well, you know me…that got me curious. So, I looked a little deeper into the difference between the two and what I found was interesting.

The Difference

Sympathy is described as acknowledging a person’s pain or misfortune and feeling sorry that they are going through the experience.

Empathy, on the other hand, takes it to a much deeper level. We go beyond sharing the experience on a surface level by taking on the other person’s feelings as if we were experiencing it ourselves.

Big difference.

Why does this matter? Well, because it can have a much deeper impact on us than we might expect. Things that can affect our health and well-being.

For instance, when we show empathy, we are learning how others behave in painful experiences. In the process, we learn skills on how to respond back in appropriate and healthy ways.

When we are being sympathetic, we’re more in an observer role. We feel bad for them, of course, but we experience it from an emotional distance.

But, you might be thinking “Well, that’s just as well. We shouldn’t be up in someone’s personal business anyway”.

I agree, to a point. But, research has shown that it’s better for your emotional well-being, as well as those you are comforting, to feel empathy instead of sympathy.

Expressing empathy for others also encourages the development of similar positive behavioral traits like trust and compassion.

Three Key Components to Empathy

Two renowned psychologists, Daniel Goleman and Paul Ekman, identified three key components to empathy: Cognitive, Emotional, and Compassionate.

Cognitive Empathy is “simply knowing how the other person feels and what they might be thinking”.

Emotional Empathy is “when you physically feel what the other person is feeling, almost as though their emotions were contagious”.

Compassionate Empathy is not only about understanding and feeling a person’s predicament at a deeper level, you are also moved to try and help.

All of these levels reflect a component of connection, something that simply expressing sympathy can’t match.

The Downside of Empathy

But, there can be a downside for a person who isn’t actively regulating the level of empathy they offer.

First, expressing empathy can be physically draining, especially if it’s from a deeply emotional level and expressed over a long period.

For instance, if you’re a person who works in a highly stressful job where empathy is required daily, like a hospice worker, you can quickly find yourself experiencing psychological and physical burnout if you aren’t actively managing it.

It also has the potential to be used against you if you are in a relationship with someone who has narcissistic tendencies. Those that are over-empathetic can unwittingly leave themselves open to abuse and manipulation.

Is Empathy a Learned Skill?

One would think that empathy is innate, a born tendency. However, research has discovered that while we are all born with the capacity for empathy, exercising it is a learned skill.

In an article in Psychology Today empathy is described as the “bedrock of intimacy and close connection”.

It’s a way to connect with others, using mutual experience and shared emotions, to develop and deepen relationships.

Dr. Brene’ Brown, a renowned researcher who has dedicated over 20 years to studying the emotional constructs of courage, vulnerability, shame, and empathy, says “Empathy fuels connection. Sympathy drives disconnection.”

She says sympathy, when compared to empathy, “creates an uneven power dynamic and can lead to more isolation and disconnection”.

Four Steps To Showing Empathy

She believes there are four steps to showing empathy.

1. Visualizing yourself in someone else’s shoes and seeing an experience from the other person’s perspective.

2. Stay out of a place of judgment and listen well.

3. Recognizing the emotion that another person is experiencing as something you’ve felt before.

4. Communicate that you recognize that emotion.

Just saying you feel sympathetic to someone else’s situation, or feelings, won’t allow you to connect with them and connection is what can truly make a difference to those who are suffering.

However, offering empathy shouldn’t mean that you open yourself up to being used as an emotional doormat.

What to Look Out For

So, it’s important to be aware of several things:

1. Make sure the person you are about to offer empathy and compassion to, is open to receiving it. Not everyone that is going through a hard time is open to receiving this type of kindness. Step back and give the person space if they ask for it.

2. If a person is soaking up your empathy like a sponge, but using it for nefarious reasons, don’t be afraid to set some boundaries to protect yourself until you have a clear picture of what’s going on.

3. Unfortunately, there are some who create their own unhappy suffering, environment, or circumstance specifically to elicit empathy from others just to gain attention.

In this situation, your empathy does little good toward healing their pain and only serves to enable their unhealthy behavior.

So, it’s important to be aware of the circumstance, and person, that you share your gift of empathy with. That’s what boundaries are for, to protect your well-being and health.

So, now that you know the very real differences between sympathy and empathy, will it make you think about the way you respond when that next opportunity arrives?

I hope so! It’s certainly given me a lot to think about in the way I communicate and respond to people who are experiencing pain or loss.

In its healthiest form, empathy is one of the most beautiful gifts we can give one another. The world can certainly use more of it today, so I encourage you to share it and spread the word!

So, my friend, as I always say….stay safe, stay healthy and stay strong!