Are You Empathetic or Sympathetic? There’s a Big Difference

“…Tell me about your despair,

And I’ll tell you about mine…” Mary Oliver

While nothing much is as black and white as things sound, for the purposes of discussion, here are the definitions.

Empathy: I understand some of what you are feeling and going through because I’ve been through similar experiences myself.

Sympathy: I feel what you feel. If you’re sad, I’m sad. If you’re angry, I’m angry. If you’re happy so am I.

As a trainer of therapists and the general public for over 30 years I’ve been teaching the differences. You see with all due respect I don’t want or need to feel what you feel. You don’t need my sympathy unless a loved one has died.  But I damn sure want to do my best to empathize with your pain or problems and what you are going through.

In my very early years as a counselor I thought I was supposed to feel your pain in my own body. That is what I’d been doing since early childhood – feeling my mother’s pain. Therapists who don’t know the difference will experience burn out pretty quickly. You see we all have enough pain or problems and thus we don’t want yours to seep into our bodies and souls.

Now if you have young children or aging or infirmed loved ones who cannot articulate their needs, then sympathy is absolutely necessary. However, if your kids are 12 or over, ideally you will switch to empathy with them because if you are still “feeling” their pain and hurts and disappointments they will struggle to separate themselves from you in healthy or less than healthy ways.

You see if we tend to feel what other adults feel that can tend to regress them, shrink them and make them feel small, and perhaps unable to feel their own feelings for fear they are causing us to feel uncomfortable.

Bottom line – Empathy elevates, lifts others up, and sometimes temporarily or permanently lifts them out of their feelings and confirms that they can deal with whatever is going on inside them or outside of them.

So, sympathy tends to shrink, and empathy tends to elevate. Many men and women identify and think of themselves as “empaths,” but based on the above when you or I feel what another adult feels, we are “sympaths.”

Many highly intellectually intelligent people confuse the two terms and some even use them interchangeably as if they mean the same thing, but they don’t. Emotionally intelligent people empathize.

Oh, the comfort—
The inexpressible comfort of feeling
safe with a person,
Having neither to weigh thoughts,
Nor measure words—but pouring them
All right out—just as they are—
Chaff and grain together—
Certain that a faithful hand will
Take and sift them—
Keep what is worth keeping—
and with the breath of kindness
Blow the rest away.

George Eliot