Empathy vs. Sympathy: The difference between empathy and sympathy is that empathy is the ability to actually experience what the person is feeling whereas sympathy is simply understanding what the person is feeling. Essentially one just carries more emotional meaning than the other. It is easy for someone to say that they care and understand what the person is going through but it is more difficult to make the person feel as if you are putting a conscious effort to console them. Within the last two years I have experienced the most sympathy and empathy that I ever have in my life.
My Problem: About two years ago my parents announced they were getting a divorce. My friends were extremely supportive of me during this time so I felt extremely loved and cared for, but there was only so much they could say. Most of their parents were still happily married so they couldn’t really relate to the feeling of having your family separated. They didn’t understand the struggle of going from seeing your dad everyday at home to only seeing him every once in a while for a meal and a movie. I envied them. I even envied their family fights. But one thing I had to keep reminding myself was that it wasn’t their fault that they hadn’t experienced what I was experiencing and it’s extremely difficult to put yourself in someone else’s shoes when you have never actually gone through it.
My Empathizer: It wasn’t until I became friends with Rebecca, who is now my best friend and support system, that I started to stop feeling so bad for myself because she always reminded me that I’m not alone. Rebecca’s parents had divorced just a couple years before mine and like me, she struggled adjusting to the change in her life. She let me vent and then gave me advice about ways to cop with these changes and always reminded me that these struggles are the things that make us stronger.
It was extremely comforting to have someone to talk to about this experience without her ever making it about herself. I could feel her hurting for me. She was extremely sensitive towards my situation while still being as honest as possible. When my friends would sympathize with me, sometimes they would talk about how people don’t always end up going through with divorces and that there still might be hope for my parents but Rebecca would always be honest and blunt with me because she never wanted me to have my expectations set too high.
I felt understood because instead of pitying me, she guided me and connected with me because she was aware of my pain. She would listen consciously and know the right questions and comments to make to make me feel heard. She was able to use her empathetic and sensitive nature to relate to me while still creating some boundaries between my situation and hers. She set boundaries in terms of how often we spoke about it, her opinion about the situation, and gave me space when I needed it.
She was able to talk with me about the positive things in my life and always reminded me that life isn’t always fair but that there are so many other things to be grateful for. I really depended on her and appreciated the resources and advice and compassion she offered me. She recognized that we are different people with different lives but somehow was able to make me feel so comfortable and supported, which was exactly what I needed at the time. I will forever be grateful for her kind words and tough love.