Sympathy and Empathy

In our quest to experience and offer charity, I believe that the differences between sympathy and empathy are important distinctions to make.  In one of her books, wise teacher named Brene Brown points out that sympathy, while well-meaning, is usually divisive, it draws a firm line between my experiences and your experiences.  If you offer me sympathy you might say “Whoa, I’m glad I’ve never had to go through that, it sounds awful.”  Or maybe “Wow, do you think there’s anything you could’ve done to prevent this?”  or “What have you done to try to fix it?” or “Have you ever considered that this is just part of God’s plan for you and He knows best?”  Sympathy illustrates that it’s me over here and you over there, and you’re uncomfortable with the place I’m at right now.

As we develop our ability to offer empathy, we realize that although our experiences may not be exactly the same our humanity is.  Empathy realizes that my deepest sadness probably feels a lot like your deepest sadness and despite our differences, we are bound to each other by similar emotions.  As we experience hardship, loss or grief for ourselves (or seek to learn from the experiences of others), we begin to see the difference between feeling bad for someone and feeling bad with someone.  It takes practice, sensitivity, patience and maybe a few well-placed questions (but often just a closed mouth), to sit in heartache or ride grief right alongside a friend without trying to resolve it.

Here is an example: Those who become intimately acquainted with grief know she’s a guest who routinely overstays her welcome.  She demands attention at inopportune times and she’s agitated when you put her off.  An empathetic friend is ok with that.  If needed, an empathetic friend will come to you, knowing she needs to allow extra space in her visit to accommodate grief.   She will expect grief to waltz in unannounced and stay as long as she pleases.  On the other hand, a sympathetic friend who is still learning empathy, may, in her need to act, rush over and try to usher grief out the door.  She may dole out unsolicited advice on how to shorten grief’s visit while asking her to go take a walk or she may think it best to remind you that grief’s visit will eventually end.  Those who know grief know that once she’s made her appearance, she rarely ever leaves your side, but she does eventually quiet down and settle into the flow of your life.   She will still make surprising outbursts but you will be more familiar with her by then and have ideas on how to acknowledge her without giving yourself over to her.  An empathetic friend will know this and will remain accessible as you come to this knowledge yourself.  A sympathetic friend may not but it’s not because she doesn’t want to offer compassion in the way you need it, it’s just because she and grief haven’t gotten to know each other so there’s still some awkwardness between them.  You hope the two won’t meet anytime soon, but if they do, you will doubtless be there to sit with her and as she learns you won’t feel self-righteous.  You’ll just feel sad.

Is there any question which the Savior offers us?


8 thoughts on “Sympathy and Empathy

  1. Very interesting. Sometimes we need both sympathy and empathy at the same time to overcome the trials of life because the trials of life are many and varied and do not come one at a time. But often what we need most is courage and faith to know we can go forward when the trials get harder so we never give up on ourselves or the Lord.

  2. I love your analogy to describe the difference between the two. I think the hard part is learning how to have our actions and words speak empathy to others, rather than sympathy. Even when our hearts feel empathy, we may not know how to express it that way, or it may not come across that way to the other person because of where they may be coming from at the time. When my brother died I realized that people may not always say the right things, but they do usually mean well nonetheless. This has sometimes caused me to be reluctant in expressing my compassion to others for fear of being missunderstood, and sometimes has also gotten in the way of being able to express myself and my feelings correctly. I really liked how you said “Empathy realizes that my deepest sadnesss probably feels a lot like your deepest sadness and despite our differences we are bound to each other by similar emotions” That is very profound because we all have our different trials, and we have a tendency to compare our trials with those of others, and spend more time on that then on noticing the places where we can find common ground and relate to one another. What is it about experiencing a hardship that naturally causes us to withdraw to ourself and assume that we are the only one feeling that way, and that there is not another person who understands? Maybe it is, just as you said, that Christ is there to show empathy, and give us the support we are needing to pull out of the dark place- and if we focus on believing that nobody understands, then we are not allowing ourselves to recognize that HE does.

  3. Heather, I love that. You created things from the words that I hadn’t thought of. Thanks for thinking about it and sharing your perspective. I can relate to staying quiet in an effort to do no harm. I’m going to think about your question. What does lead us to withdraw? I wonder if it’s the inclination to figure out what we’re feeling. I think when we’re awash in something hard, awkward or devastating, the compounded emotions feel like strong rapids and it’s all we can do to stay afloat until we get a little further downriver and things settle slightly. When I’m in the thick of survival mode, I am hard-pressed to interact with people who leave me with even more unsettling and unidentified emotions. I think that’s why I appreciate empathy. Usually people who offer me empathy are throwing me a rope when I’m drowning in emotion. By either helping me identify the emotions I’m feeling or respecting the importance of that unsettled place I’m in, they don’t add to my burden. I agree with you though, we are all trying to offer compassion, we’re all just coming from different places in terms of experience and emotional awareness.

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