Empathy vs. Sympathy: Empathy and Sympathy are two totally different concepts. Having sympathy for someone does not require any type of connection. For example if someone was very sick having sympathy for them could simply be the statement, “oh that’s too bad, at least you’ll get better soon”. Whereas, having empathy for this person would be putting yourself in their shoes and really understanding where they are coming from and being their to comfort them.
When empathy helped me: A time where empathy helped me that really stands out happened when I was ten years old. I had a dog named Nush (after a river in Alaska), who meant the world to me. One day he ran away and we later found out he was hit by a car. To say I was devastated would be a huge understatement. I truly did not know what to do with myself or how to go about feeling better. I remember calling my best friend Charlotte and telling her what had happened. The reaction was honestly the best it could have been. After I hung up the phone, Charlotte came over to my house and just sat with me. She did not try to sugar coat the situation or change the topic, she just sat with me and told me she was there for me.
Obviously there was nothing that anyone could do to make this situation better, or to fix what had happened. However, Charlotte sitting with me and reminding me that I was not alone definitely made me feel better. Charlotte had a dog of her own and knew how much mine meant to me. She really connected with me by putting herself in my shoes and setting great boundaries in this situation. Charlotte did exactly what she was supposed to do as my best friend.
The sympathetic approach: The level of empathy that I experienced from Charlotte was much different than times where I have received sympathy. When I was a senior in high school, I had my heart set on going to a certain college. My boyfriend at the time knew how badly I wanted to get into that school, and how stressed I was about getting accepted. When I found out that I did not get in, he sent me a text saying, “Ah that sucks”. I will never forget how that made me feel in that moment. Yes, he was showing sympathy by saying that it “sucked”, but I did not feel understood.
Unlike Charlotte who had connected with me and showed me support, my boyfriend said things like, “Well at least you have other options”. The boundaries that he had set were not right for this situation, meaning he chose the wrong time to offer sympathy when he should have shown empathy. In the article on empathy versus sympathy, Alan Henry states, “The key to being empathetic is to not judge the other person, or try to paint an unwanted or unhelpful silver lining around their problem, and to instead recognize what they’re feeling”. Charlotte’s style of communication showed me that she genuinely cared about my feelings and wanted to be there for me. She knew that nothing she could say would change what had happened, so she just made it clear that she knew where I was coming from and that we would get through it together.
The importance of knowing the difference: Clearly there is a time for sympathy, and there is a time for empathy. Both sympathy and empathy can be appropriate in certain circumstances, however it is crucial to understand when to use which one. In order to get the response that you are looking for out of another, you need to provide them with the proper information so that they can respond correctly. For example, instead of overflowing your negativity and complaints onto someone, you can directly say that you are upset, explain the situation, and allow them to respond. By taking the time to say exactly how you feel without dragging out your complaints, you’re allowing the other person to connect to your feelings are offer empathy.