I do not ask a wounded person how he feels,
I myself become the wounded person,
My heart turns livid upon me as I lean on a cane and observe.
Walt Whitman, Song of Myself
Empathy and sympathy are two words we hear a lot, particularly in the context of one person reacting or relating to the difficult circumstances or challenging situation of another.
What’s the difference, exactly?
Empathy is About Sharing Feelings
In her charming video about the subject, University of Houston researcher Brené Brown says that empathy involves sharing feelings or being able to feel with someone.
Sympathy, though it also involves recognizing another person’s emotions, often leads to a response that tries to minimize the intensity of the other person’s experience, the offer of a solution or way to ‘fix the problem.’
An empathetic reaction recognizes that there isn’t necessarily a response that can make things better. “Connection makes things better,” Brown says.
The Four Qualities of Empathy
Theresa Wiseman, a nursing scholar, describes four qualities of empathy. These include:
Sharing is Caring
What should you say when someone comes to you upset and struggling with overwhelming emotions? Brené Brown suggests that sometimes the best thing to say is, “I don’t know what to say, but I am really glad you told me.” Fostering a sense of caring and acceptance is often more helpful than trying to come up with a solution to a problem.
Walk a Mile in My Shoes
An empathetic reaction is only possible when you are able to put yourself in the other person’s shoes, to recognize in yourself the same emotional reaction to a similar experience.
Sympathy Recognizes Emotional Experience
Sympathy, on the other hand, involves a recognition or acknowledgement of the other person’s emotional experience without necessarily also sharing a personal understanding of the experience. Comforting the other person and providing reassurance are kind and thoughtful responses to another person’s emotional pain even when it’s not possible to directly relate through shared experience.
Though a sympathetic response may be much appreciated when someone is suffering, an empathetic response can lead to a deep connection between people who feel they have a special bond as a result of a strong shared emotional experience.
In both empathy and sympathy, kindness and compassion underlie the desire (and ability) to recognize the experiences of others.
Too Much (Or Too Little) Empathy Can be Problematic
For someone who is naturally empathetic and feels the emotional pain of others often and deeply, it’s possible to feel overwhelmed. For natural empaths, it’s important to maintain boundaries and practice self care so as not to take on too much of another’s emotional pain.
The opposite is the case when someone is unable to share the emotional experiences of others. A sociopath is someone who has trouble empathizing with others while a psychopath lacks this ability completely.
Children Can Learn to Be Empathetic
Developing empathetic skills requires practice and that practice can start in early childhood. Teaching our children to talk about their own emotions and to recognize and identify the emotions experienced by others lays the foundation needed to become empathetic adults.
Expressing Sympathy is Also Rooted in Kindness
Given that we all have different life experiences and emotional reactions, it’s impossible to always have a deeply empathetic reaction to everyone else’s intense emotional experiences. When we can’t directly relate an emotional experience of our own to one we encounter in someone else, then expressing sympathy is a way to recognize and validate another person’s emotional pain. Learning to recognize similarities in our own past emotional responses even when the exact circumstances may differ is a way to deepen the empathetic response. By allowing ourselves to be vulnerable and share in another’s pain we are able to form rich and deep connections with others.
For more information on establishing boundaries so you don’t feel overwhelmed in emotionally intense encounters, using empathy to strengthen your primary relationships, or raising empathetic children and teenagers, visit the Oakville Wellness Center.