Empathy is Better than Sympathy

steiner-prag_0Sympathy is acknowledging another person’s feelings. “I am sorry for your loss” means you understand the other person is grieving and want to recognize that fact.

Empathy is having the ability to put yourself in the other person’s shoes and relate to how the person feels, at least in part because you’ve experienced those feelings yourself.

Understanding and knowing (or at least truly relating to the feelings) are two different things.

Empathy connects us to others. It requires an ability and willingness to take the perspective of another person, which begins by recognizing that their perspective is their truth. It requires us to stay out of judgement. And it requires we recognize emotion in other people and then communicate accordingly. All easier said than done.

Sympathy is disconnecting, or more passive. “I’m sorry, I know it sucks for you, but…” The “but” is often implied, whether or not it’s actually spoken. It’s a hallmark of sympathy. It could mean anything from, “I don’t really care that much” to, “At least [fill in the blank with some proposed silver lining].”

Empathy is the vulnerable choice because it requires us to connect with something in ourselves that knows that feeling. It’s not comfortable (understatement). It’s you being willing to walk down the steps of that dark and foreboding stairwell to truly meet the other person where he or she is.

Sympathy tries to make things bearable. It can be dismissive, or it sometimes looks for a solution. Anything to get away from dealing with the difficulty or pain. It takes courage to sit with it and be in the weirdness without feeling the need to somehow dismiss it or even rationalize it. It simply is what it is, and it sucks, and there may be nothing to say. Often times it is better to say little to nothing.

It can be hard for us to know what to do to best help others (hint – the answer is sometimes nothing but be present). It can be hard to know how to act, but when we are the one who is struggling it’s usually pretty easy to sort the difference between sympathy and empathy. It matters to us greatly at those times, and we usually remember.


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