What’s the difference between empathy and sympathy?

Courtesy Valerie Everette/FlickR Creative Commons

Courtesy Valerie Everette/FlickR Creative Commons

How often do we use the words empathy and sympathy interchangeably? I know I’ve probably done it unconsciously a lot of times. But as Dr. Brené Brown talks about in this video, there is a clear distinction. She says that empathy fuels connection while sympathy drives disconnection. Why though?

Dr. Brown cites a scholar who found 4 qualities associated with empathy:

  1. Perspective taking (taking perspective of other person or recognizing their perspective as their truth)
  2. Staying out of judgment
  3. Recognizing emotion in other people
  4. Communicating that

Empathy is about saying that I will go to that place where you are. I not only recognize what you are going through, but I will go to that space with you and validate those feelings. I’m not going to be put a bandage on a bullet wound. I’m not going to minimize your experience. I’m not going to find the silver lining right away. All I’m going to do is sit there. Sit there with you. Don’t misinterpret this as expecting someone to live in that space, but when someone shares something really difficult with you, validate where they are. This will in turn help them to accept the situation faster. You can only supersede a situation that you first acknowledge. Feel the depths of what you feel. Feel it all, but as Iyanla Vanzant has said, don’t buy property there. Acknowledge those emotions.

Empathy also requires a great deal of vulnerability because it says that I’ve felt what you’ve felt. I may not have experienced everything you have, but I know that feeling. Empathy asks you to find a place within you that was also hurt.

In contrast, sympathy can often be conveyed in trite ways. It can sound like “oh yikes, that does suck.” Sympathetic (unlike empathetic) statements start with “At least…”. “At least you still have a job.” “At least you already have 2 kids.” “At least” is the gateway to invalidating someone’s experience. People will often say “Oh well, there’s a reason for everything” or “It’s not meant to be.” While all these sentiments may be true and good in many instances, you don’t want to hear them right away. You just want to know that your feelings were heard. You want to know that it’s ok to be upset by something. You want to hear, “I bet that is disappointing;” “I’m sorry it happened that way;” “I’ve been there. [Fill in your story].”

Often in our experiences, we just want to make things better. We may not intend to undermine or minimize someone’s experience, but when we try to problem solve too soon, that’s what it may feel like. As Dr. Brené Brown says, it’s ok to just say “I don’t even know what to say right now, but I’m so glad you told me.” It’s ok to say that you don’t know what to say. It’s ok to just sit with whoever you are with and let them be. Trust and love them enough to know that they can handle wherever they are. You don’t need to solve their problems or make them feel better. Many people are often capable of that on their own. They may know things will get better and that there are silver linings, but they may not know that it’s ok to feel the way they do. In the meantime, can you validate their experience? Can you say “I hear you, I see you, and I’m here for you”?

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Rubin Khoddam, PhD Clinical Psychology student at University of Southern California, founder of Psych Connection.

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Categories: Blogs by Rubin, Relationships, Videos

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