A Story of Empathy

There is a Difference:  It is easy to understand that life as a whole has it’s ups and downs.  Not everything can work out the exact way you might have imagined, and furthermore, the same outcome of something can affect people in completely different ways.  The crucial part in dealing with other people’s hardships is the difference between showing sympathy and empathy.  When someone else is struggling, it is easy to say something to try and make things better.  However when you are the person that is hurting, all you really need is someone to show empathy.  As pointed out in this chart, the major fact that sets these two actions apart is the ability to experience what someone is feeling rather than simply understanding.  

My Story:  It was during my second semester of college at the University of Colorado when I learned the difference between empathy and sympathy.  To give some background, I have never been someone who has been able to easily tackle school.  School has always been consuming for me, and required a lot of effort.  Upon coming to college, I did not have my priorities straight, and I did not make the grades that were expected of me.  Ultimately, I ended up on academic probation.  Although my parents were upset, they decided to give me another chance for the spring semester to redeem myself.  

The spring semester started off alright, and I felt as if I could excel even though I was taking some tough classes.  If we fast forward to the end of the semester, I found myself in the same hole as I was during my first semester of college.  I was treading in familiar, but unfavorable water, and the stress was starting to build going into finals.

It was a late night during finals that I truly learned the difference between sympathy and empathy.  I had been at the library all day studying for a chemistry final, which was early the next morning.  It was my last final, in a class I had not done my best in, and the material was just not sinking in.  At that point in my life, it was the most stressed out I had ever been.  The thought of leaving the school I loved so much scared me to death.  Being fed up with my studies at this point, I quickly gathered my things and left in a hurry.  I sat down on the stairs outside of Norlin, and buried my head into my lap.  I thought for sure that it would be one of the last times I looked out on the quad.  img_2705

What happened next was almost a miracle given the circumstances.  While I was sitting outside of the library, an older student came up to me and sat down beside me.  I had never met this person in my life, and I was honestly confused why he made the effort to talk to me.  I remember him saying to me, “I saw you leave frantically, is everything alright?”  We talked for a few minutes outside, and he told me that he was in a similar situation during his sophomore year at CU.  By the end of the conversation, I not only felt better about my situation, however he helped me realize that I could meet my goals.  

The Takeaway:  Moral of the story, I am still at CU.  When looking back on that night, it was the random act of empathy from someone that I had never met before, that gave me the courage to finish finals out strong and succeed.  It is clear to me the difference between sympathy and empathy.  In that situation, if he had portrayed emotion differently, it would have had a completely different effect.  As John Steinbeck was quoted in this article outlining the difference between sympathy and empathy, “It means very little to know that a million people are starving unless you know one who is starving.”  


3 thoughts on “A Story of Empathy

  1. One of the most comforting things can be some one who has made it through a similar situation that you’re currently in telling you that every will turn out okay and reassure you that you are enough to handle the situation. Having some one to listen to how you’re feeling and then be able to relate to you definitely makes a difference when you’re under a lot stress. Sometimes it will be some one you know or, like in your case, it could be a complete stranger who’s able to empathize with you.

    1. I could not agree with you more. I feel as if the only times that you can really make a difference for someone who is struggling is to connect on some sort of emotional level. When someone simply says “I am sorry, that is tough” it has a completely different effect versus someone who says “ I have been there before” and can have a conversation about the situation you are in.

  2. I have definitely been there… feeling hopeless in school, and just wanting to give up. It’s extremely refreshing to have somebody (even somebody random) take time out of their day to make sure you’re okay. It is often hard for people to connect with a stranger, even if they can see the same pain they have felt themselves in the past. This post is a nice reminder to always look out for our fellow Buffs out there.


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