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

Enhancing Emotional Intelligence – Part II

Separation vs Isolation

Emotionally intelligent people engage in separation instead of isolation. By age two children begin the process of separating from their parents. By age twelve they are fully engaged in the process; unless the parents did not experience healthy separation from their parents, in which case they will tend to cling and limit their adolescence’s ability to move away from them in a healthy manner. This limiting, hovering, or clinging creates the tendency for teens and later adults to move more and more towards isolating when they need time to themselves, space and awareness, they need to renew and regenerate their energy to be with lovers, friends, children, or parents.

Separation generates closeness and intimacy because men and women can learn to detach instead of disconnecting when tired, overwhelmed, drained or exhausted by too much contact and stimulation. They get to pull away in a functional way and then return ready for more communication, commitment and caring.

Isolation leaves everyone in the dark because no one knows when the person is coming back or if they ever will come back, which very often triggers people’s unexposed, unexplored abandonment issues.  The “Isolator” closes themselves off to intimacy and can result in everything from feeling distant to contemplating divorce and ultimately to depression.

There are many forms the “Isolator” can employ, but the main one the emotionally challenged person tends to favor is to become a “Distancer.”  This is the person, who during conflict or confrontation, tends to say things like, “fine, I’m out of here,” or “whatever,” before walking or running away to work, alcohol, drugs, affairs, or other mind numbing, body numbing, emotion numbing behaviors. Luckily we can continue to become increasingly aware of the strategies that don’t serve us and learn new ones that do.

Enhancing Emotional Intelligence – Part I

Feelings Are As Important As Facts

First things first—A feeling is a fact at the moment a person is experiencing it. Emotion is as important as logic. In other words, if a person feels sad because their pet of ten years is lost or died, the sadness is as real as the sun, and they are not to be talked out of their feelings but instead receive empathy. If someone is angry about losing a job, their anger is as real to them as the stars in the sky. Again, empathy is the main element in the emotionally-intelligent person’s repertoire of responses.

Unfortunately, many people, especially many men, have been taught that the expression of feelings and emotions makes them weak or inferior in some way. This is changing rapidly for younger generations who are being exposed to and supported in learning about emotional intelligence early on in their education.

Now no matter your age, I.Q., vocation, occupation, or education, you too hold in your hands a practical, easy to understand and implement, guide to increasing and enhancing your emotional intelligence, which will allow you to be more emotionally present and available to those you love, care about, and even work with.