Understanding the Difference Between Sympathy and Empathy

Woman looking out

“You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive.”  James Baldwin

I had an opportunity to rewatch this outstanding video by Brené Brown explaining the differences between being sympathetic and empathetic. First, let’s watch the video.

I truly love the way that Ms. Brown uses humor to talk about these difficult subjects. Now that there is more of an understanding of the differences between sympathy and empathy, let’s look at their definitions from the Merriam Webster.

The feeling that you care about and are sorry about someone else’s trouble, grief, misfortune, etc.

The feeling that you understand and share another person’s experiences and emotions.

Sympathy and Empathy are not synonyms and it is more than a subtle difference. As we are looking at, sympathy simply allows you to care and feel sorry for someone else, while empathy is a full understanding and sharing of someone else’s experiences and emotions.

What I find most interesting is that many people I talk to use the wrong definitions when talking to other. This is important, because, in many cases, someone will be trying to show empathy when they are really showing sympathy for someone in crisis.

As someone who has gone through several types of mental support issues in my past such as, stress, anxiety, depression, and C-PTSD, I can talk to many others with an empathetic ear. This is important to the other person, because, in many cases, they need someone to understand that they are not “crazy” and that many others have been through what they went through and can give them empathetic feedback.

Unfortunately, there are many people who believe they are doing good when they offer sympathetic feedback, because they are not truly tuned in to the reality of what the person talking is going through. From the bullying perspective of this site, it comes into play when a school administrator or counselor works with a bullied child and tries to offer empathetic advice when they have no past experience to offer that. It can actually do more harm than good, as the child or person suffering with the experience can detect that from others as in Mrs. Brown’s video. I had this happen many times in my life and it only led to me feeling more alienated and more like I was “different” from others. Over a long period of time, people begin to have feelings of being alone and that no one can understand them.

While this may seem like a simple issue on the surface, it’s actually one that continues to cause several issues in working with a person who has a past of abuse or bullying. They need to regain the trust of others, particularly adults. When sympathy and empathy are mistaken in your responses, this can do more harm than good. That is why Bullying Recovery exists as a company and why I have focused my energy on helping to find both sympathetic and empathetic individuals to help. So what can you do right?

Listen, listen, listen

Many times, people need to talk or do talk therapy. They are looking for someone to listen to them and let them know that, not only aren’t they “crazy”, but that what they are going through is quite normal and, in many cases, can be curable. But, due to time and assumptions, many people are not good listeners. They give a brief amount of time and then offer advice (or a sandwich in Mrs. Brown’s video). This can be very frustrating for the individual trying to get better.

Decide if you can offer sympathy or empathy

That’s right, you need to be the one to realize if you can offer sympathy or empathy. Make sure that you have the tool kit to offer the right solution. Don’t just assume that you do and that you can help solve someone else’s difficult issue. Be honest to yourself and to others. For example, I do not believe that bullying can ever be stopped. Some others do. So I have to be honest with myself and others I talk to about that. If you tell people you are going to help them and stop the bullying…well you get the idea of the true trouble that could cause.

Sympathy comes from the mind and Empathy from the heart

This should make it easier to remember. If you are not being emotionally touched by the person you are talking to, you are probably feeling sympathy. Empathy typically tugs at the heart strings and may even make you relive some of your own memories based on what the person is saying. It’s the quickest way for you to decide how to respond and what you are truly feeling or not feeling.

This is not an easy aspect of understanding, but one so important to the outcome of the individual you are talking to and your own ability to develop your own true understandings of your feelings. As a Life Coach, I have learned that there are many reasons to make sure that you focus on that “easy” aspect of understanding, but one so important to the outcome of the individual you are talking to and your own ability to develop your own true understandings of your feelings. As a Life Coach, I have learned that there are many reasons to make sure that you should really be the one talking to the person you want to help. If you know you aren’t, you need to let them go find the right person.

I get it, that many of us want to be the ones to help. But are you the right person for the job? Are you truly feeling sympathetic or empathetic and do you know what the person you are talking to is looking for? I know from my own past experiences, that I needed empathetic people to tell me I was not alone and that I was going to be OK. But my reality was that I was surrounded by sympathetic people when I was young that ended up doing more damage. We are lucky to live at a time where we can find empathy on videos on the intern like Brené Brown’s video shared here. But this is only as good as what we learn and use from it. The key is to be honest with yourself and the person you are talking to and let them know that you can offer sympathy or empathy. In the end, it can make a big difference in the outcome of the help you are offering in a conversation.

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About bullyingrecovery

Alan Eisenberg is a Certified Life Coach with a niche in bullying and abuse recovery, Bullying Recovery activist, and author of "A Ladder In The Dark: My journey from bullying to self-acceptance". and "Crossing the Line". He has been writing and speaking to various audiences about the issue of C-PTSD and Bullying Recovery. Mr. Eisenberg has been featured on several print, radio shows and podcasts on this issue, including NPR and in the Boston Globe
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