Empathy: One Step Further Than Sympathy

Where it started

For me, freshman year of college was great. I loved the new experiences, friends, and independence that I gained being away from home. However, living in the dorms was like living in a giant petri dish. Basically, it was a germ cesspool. After getting mono during the fall semester, my immune system was knocked out of sorts. I had tonsillitis one to two times a month, putting a constant grimace on my face from every time I swallowed.

empathyBy the end of the school year I was sick (no pun intended) of the constant infections. Going to the doctor so often was inconvenient and I was ready to change that routine. My doctor decided it was time to visit the ear nose and throat specialist about getting my tonsils removed.

A few of my friends had gone through the same surgery and all of them said it was painful, but the pain was manageable. They said that I’d be back to normal in a few days. I worried relentlessly about the surgery, as I’d never been placed under anesthesia before. I googled just about everything that can go wrong during a tonsillectomy and nearly psyched myself out. When it was time for surgery, I was anxious to get it over with and get my health back.

The Following Days

I wasn’t back to my normal self in a few days like my friends had said. In fact, the narcotics I was given to relieve my pain from surgery made me awfully sick. I was constantly vomiting, which felt like fire on my raw throat. I tried three different kinds of painkillers before my doctor prescribed anti-nausea pills to be taken with the narcotics.

My medication stopped making me sick but my throat had become infected due to the vomiting. I was put on an antibiotic and was instructed to take it easy. I made a nest for myself on the couch and did just that. My throat remained extremely sensitive, so It took around two and a half weeks until I was able to start eating food that didn’t jiggle (I haven’t eaten Jell-O since).

Empathy Stepped Up To The Plate

The friends of mine that had experienced a tonsillectomy told me that they knew how I felt and assured me, again, that I’d be back to normal in a few days. Being told, “I know, it sucks, I’m sorry” and “Just eat some ice cream”, made my specific experience seem like it was a body’s average reaction to a tonsillectomy. Like Brene Brown mentioned in her video on empathy, a response didn’t make things better.

However, Brown did mention that a connection did make things better, and that’s just what I got. One of my friends, Sloane, who had never experienced a tonsillectomy, watched her boyfriend have a similar experience to mine. In “Empathy vs. Sympathy: What’s the difference?”, the author stresses that empathy is more specific and personal whereas sympathy is more a feeling of sorrow. Sloane could relate to how I was specifically feeling after my tonsillectomy, which allowed her to be empathetic. She didn’t offer me ice cream or tell me that my throat will heal in no time, instead she could identify with my feelings on a personal level.

The article Empathy vs. Sympathy says that sympathy is the reaction to the plight of others. I didn’t need a reaction to all the complications that came with my tonsillectomy, what I needed was someone to just be present. Specifically, I needed someone that would avoid telling me it was going to be okay but instead be understanding of my situation without trying to alleviate


8 thoughts on “Empathy: One Step Further Than Sympathy

  1. Sounds like a tough situation. I remember getting my wisdom teeth out and needing a lot of help as well. That’s unfortunate you didn’t have someone by your side.

  2. Surgery can be terrible, I underwent several in a short period of time and remember feeling like a burden to those around me. The “its not so bad” response is hard to deal with because it feel like no one understands what you’re dealing with.

    1. I completely agree. It’s tough leaning on people when you yourself are used to doing a lot of things on your own. And, like you said, the “it’s not so bad” response doesn’t help at all.

  3. Real empathy is much stronger in these situations when you see that difference in people who have “been there done that” and have actually good advice, versus those who just say, “oh that really sucks, eat soft foods.” Hopefully now you live somewhere that isn’t comparable to a germ cesspool!

    1. Noah- I’d definitely have to agree that empathy is a lot stronger in situations where you can compare peers differing reactions. I don’t live in a germ cesspool anymore, thankfully!

  4. When I got my wisdom teeth out I genuinely could not even eat liquefied food for a week and lost a lot of weight, was very uncomfortable and hurting. My family and friends were telling me I was being weird, etc. but didn’t come down to my level and see what I was going through. I understand what you are saying. Many people simply do not know how to deal with something they have yet to experience.

  5. Hey,
    Mono is the worst thing ever, when I had it in high school it was awful, but I can not imagine having it at college away from home, sounds like a living nightmare. You are very lucky to have such an understanding friend as Sloane, those are hard to find. Hold on tight!

  6. I had mono my freshman year of college as well. It’s such a tough thing to go through when everyone else is blowing through their courses and having fun.

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