Empathy Vs. Sympathy || Tips, Change & Experience

Surprisingly, not everyone knows the difference. If you aren’t sure what they both mean it’s very easy to think that they’re the one of the same. Today, I’m here to make it easier to differentiate between them; and which one will get your further in friendships and relationships.

In a nutshell:

Empathy – choice

Sympathy – automatic

Empathy

Empathy focuses more of the human connection, being able to jump into the perspective of other people and their situation. Empathy is choosing to connect with someone to help them.

Just say someone tells you that they’re having marriage troubles, empathy would suggest that you sit them down and ask questions like “what’s been going on?” “How does this make you feel or effect you?” “Have you discussed this with your husband/wife?” Etc. You’re making the conscious choice to step into their shoes and help them from their perspective, but be aware that you won’t truly be having the same perspective as them and that’s okay.

Empathy focuses on matching someone emotionally, and helping them from that point. Thinking back, can you recognise if someone’s been empathetic with you? Chances are, not very often. This could be for a few reasons: ignorance, lack of life experience, inability to connect with others, emotional issues, psychopaths/sociopaths and narcissists cannot display empathy, selfishness etc.

Empathy can be exhausting, but it’s also very rewarding and I promise you, your family and friends will connect with you much easier if you show empathy. You also learn a lot about yourself too and become self aware. Personally, I love trying to connect and understand other people’s feelings, emotions and life experiences; basically their mentality so for me empathy comes pretty naturally but it does need work and further understanding and growth.

Some tips on being empathetic:

  • Listen without judgement
  • Don’t be too quick to give advice
  • Don’t use things like “you could’ve…” “you should’ve…” “why didn’t you do it this way?” “I just don’t understand” etc
  • Be willing to do more listening than talking
  • Reassure the person
  • Validate their feelings, never make them feel inadequate or invalid
  • Don’t push your own beliefs or values onto the person
  • Take a moment to put yourself in their shoes, what would you want said to you?
  • Out their interests ahead of yours when listening
  • Ask questions that will allow you to connect with the person, while maintains boundaries
  • Use open ended questions, clarify and reflect verbally on what is being said. This way they know you’re listening and that you want to help

Sympathy

Sympathy is more the automatic response that many of us use in situations that we don’t know what to say, how to react, we don’t really care for or if we simply cannot connect with people. Sympathy encourages a drift in that you’ll distance yourself from the person and that person just won’t come to you with any problems or concerns due to the attitudes you’ve presented. People will also find it hard to connect with you.

Using the above example, the person says to you that they’re having marriage problems, a sympathetic response is “well at least you’re married!” See where the disconnect happens? A lot of other sympathetic responses can include “have you tried…” “why didn’t you try…” “I don’t think you’ve given this a go…” “I had …. die and I got over it in 2 weeks, why can’t you?”

Sympathy is usually used because of life inexperience, if you haven’t experienced something how can you reassure or help a person? If you flip it into empathy and develop those skills, you’ll never come back to sympathy.

In short, sympathy is a sorrow for someone’s misfortune without a connection being made. With sympathy, people usually try and compare their own experiences that may be similar or completely different to the persons situation – yeh, that happens.

The pros of being empathetic

  • You’re more likely to develop meaningful connections to people
  • You’ll become less judgemental over time
  • You can create life experience through others for the future
  • You can better equip yourself with coping skills in the event you may experience similar situations
  • Longer lasting and caring friendships/relationships
  • Become more self aware and understanding of yourself
  • Better understand your own beliefs and values
  • Know your boundaries
  • Have better communication skills
  • Grow as a person
  • Share personal experiences without comparing yourself to others

My personal experience with both

A lot of people don’t really know how to react to situations they’ve never been through. When my parents divorced a lot of people would tell me how exciting it is to have 2 bedrooms, I understood that they didn’t know what to say but appreciated the gesture nonetheless; 2 bedrooms don’t make you feel better though.

I’ve also dealt with, and read, people wanting abortions for different reasons. I have never been in this situation and I found it hard to to be empathetic as I had no clue. I did try to not be sympathetic but I feel that maybe that’s how I came across. I’ve since learnt that researching these sorts of topics helps deeply with understanding them without holding any judgement and being able to connect better with them.

I’ve also been sympathetic with myself which did more bad than good. When my pa died I would tell myself that at least I loved my pa, that I’m lucky that I got to know him etc and in the long run it just made dealing with it…… more difficult. While they’re true, they’re not helpful to the situation.

Before I dealt with a lot of family death, when people told me that their relative had died I’d pretty much give the usually spiel of “I’m so sorry for your loss, are you okay?”. I didn’t understand death and I sure as hell didn’t understand the emotional turmoil of it. Whenever I think about those moments I still feel awful but I use it as a learning experience and grow from it. This is why I don’t necessarily hate the people that do the same to me when I’m feeling down about a death because I understand their thinking, I’ve been there too, we all have. I instead choose to have more patience with them because they have no idea.

As I’ve mentioned above, and may other times, I really like connecting with people and understanding them, I like learning how and why people act how they do around other people, their thought content and behaviour, their topics of choice, life experience and so on. Being more empathetic has allowed this skill to develop further, if I know what a person is like and their values and beliefs I can help them while respecting those things. I can also spot if someone’s not doing so good because they’re acting different, event just a slight change in behaviour.

Since recovering and working in my mental illness I’ve chosen love over hate. It’s easy to hate and it achieves nothing at all. It’s easier to get angry and mad at someone who doesn’t know wha they’ve done and make assumptions, but using empathy and love can change that and your whole outlook on life. I really encourage you to practice empathy.

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