Empathy vs. Sympathy

Empathy and sympathy have different meanings. I have been thinking about these concepts for several years and found the view I am presenting here helpful in my practice and everyday life.

Empathy is being able to put yourself in the place of someone else. "Walk in their shoes." When you look up sympathy in the dictionary, you will find words and phrases like "feeling sorry for" and "pity." So, how do we apply these words in everyday life in a way that is helpful? Empathy is about understanding the plight of another person whereas sympathy is more about relieving the pain you feel when someone else is in a difficult situation. An example may be helpful. Let's say a person is trying to quit smoking cigarettes. A person with empathy might say something like, "Gee, what's that like for you?" We never can "know" what the other person is feeling unless we ask. Even if we have been through a similar situation, so, instead of saying, "I know how you feel," we say, "What's that like for you." Another great question you might ask is, "Have you found anything helpful, dealing with this?" What the person will talk about is their fund of coping skills. Some people have this pretty well figured out. Most people, do not. So, you hear what the person tells you is helpful. You may ask if there is anything they have tried that is definitely not helpful? You may also ask if there are any other things they have thought of that may be helpful that they haven't tried, yet? All these are great questions to ask the person in distress. Please don't give them advice. Most people hate advice and run from it.
The person who offers sympathy does so from the perspective of wanting to relieve their own sense of distress over someone else's problem. The person offering sympathy to someone trying to quit smoking cigarettes may say something like, "You look awfully stressed out. Here, have one of mine. (Offering the person a cigarette.) The point is, are you helping the person in distress or yourself? Hopefully, you can see that the person offering empathy will be more helpful then the person offering sympathy.

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