Empathy: n. 1. the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another
Sympathy: n. 1.sorrow or the capacity to feel sorrow for another’s suffering or misfortune. Synonym for sympathy include: commiseration, condolence, regret, pity.
Empathy and sympathy might seem similar at first but they are worlds apart, in my opinion. There are some people who appear to be empathetic when we tell them something but they are actually sympathetic. What’s the difference?? To make things simpler in my mind, I’ve always associated sympathy with pity. People who express pity seem to feel helpless to act. The word “commiserate” was synonymous with sympathy which also helped me clarify the differences. Any time I’ve “commiserated” with anyone, it’s looked like a grand old bitching session. Lots of airing the dirty laundry, little action and no one really feels better.
The difference between sympathy and empathy is heart. When someone is venting their problems, many times the first reaction is to jump in the muck and roll around with the one venting. It takes a different part of ourselves to extend empathy. So, what is empathy? Empathy is the ability to identify and validate someone’s feelings. Empathy is not pity. Empathy is not jumping in the muck. Empathy is acknowledging the pain in someone else and not trying to “fix” them. I was shown Brene’ Brown on Empathy (<<click to watch video) recently. It’s a brilliant video which explains the differences of these two words.
Having been on both sides of empathy and sympathy, I can see times when I was less than empathetic with people. Why is empathy so difficult to express? Empathy requires us to tap into ourselves and feel our pain in order to help someone else. Pain is uncomfortable and I think most of us spend a good amount of energy running from it. It’s counterintuitive to sit with your pain much less anyone else’ pain. However, sitting with our own pain is often when we learn the most about ourselves. Sitting with someone else in pain and empathizing with them validates their feelings and lets them know they are not the only one who has ever felt like this. That validation of feelings is huge because it lets the person in pain know they are not alone, they are not crazy and that what they feel is OK.
Brene Brown’s video popped up in my social media stream. A comment was made about this video said “So many of us mean well, but we aren’t helping a bit and we don’t know how”. That comment angered me, primarily due to who said it but it got me asking the “why” of this statement. Why don’t we know how to empathize?? I had to think long and hard about this question.
I feel is so difficult for some people to be empathetic because they are so afraid of their own feelings. They are afraid to acknowledge the sadness, fear, anger, shame, judgement or feelings of helplessness within themselves. Ask them to be there for someone else in their moment of need??? For them, it’s fucking terrifying. So instead they try to throw sunshine over you when you’re trying to share your heart. They say things like “but look at the bright side” and “just let that stuff roll off” or “but look at all you do have” instead of actually listening to you and validating your feelings. Do they think they are helping? Probably. They are trying to cheer you up and that’s good, right?? What they don’t realize is, sometimes being silent, giving a hug and allowing that person in pain to talk is more help than any false sunshine or temporary distraction.
It’s not easy to live from your heart and that is exactly what empathy is: connecting to another with your heart. Vulnerability is a scary thing but in order for us to be empathetic, we must allow ourselves to be vulnerable. I have to bite my tongue sometimes still because my reflex for so long was sympathy and commiseration (which I thought was empathy). I was the one who tried to throw sunshine at others instead of listening. I was the one who commiserated in the trenches until we both felt horrible. I was the one who could not see past my own pain and therefore I was often unable to be there for others. What changed? I experienced empathy for myself instead of pity and I finally understood the difference.