On the surface, sympathy seems helpful. The problem with sympathy is that while it acknowledges the hard times someone is facing, it doesn't offer them any support whether be a listening ear or something practical.
If sympathy is looking into the pit of depression or grief and saying "Sorry", then empathy is climbing in and saying "I'm here for you. We'll get out together".
"I think we should talk more about our empathy deficit - the ability to put ourselves in someone else's shoes; to see the world through the eyes of those who are different from us - the child who's hungry, the steelworker who's been laid off, the family who lost the entire life they built together when the storm came to town. When you think like this, when you choose to broaden your ambit of concern and empathise with the plight of others, whether they are close friends or distant strangers; it becomes harder not to act; harder not to help."
- Barrack Obama - 2006The problem with sharing someone's pain is that it will drain you. To give you an example, if someone is constantly demanding empathy from you yet dismisses your thoughts and feelings then you don't have the foundation of an equal or healthy friendship or relationship. It is possible to burn out from empathy especially if your job or role involves listening to and support people- whether you are an aid worker, a Doctor, a teacher or a therapist.
Interestingly, Scientists have documented empathy in toddlers who showed concern for a parent - yet showing concern for another's wellbeing is often something that has to be taught or reinforced for some older children (and adults!). Empathy is something we can call do but it takes thought and effort to create a real rapport and put yourself into their metaphorical shoes.
I'll share with you a problem and see if you can use empathy while reading it. Think about what you would if we were sat next to each other. What could you say to share the problem rather than just observe it and sympathize with it?
There is a person I want to be part of my life yet the care and concern for this person and their antics can be draining to the point of frustration. Their silence in the communication can make people feel unwanted or perhaps just that they lack the care and energy to bother with anyone but themselves. Maybe they are selfish. An event happened recently, with plenty of warning, that was very important - or maybe I just felt it was important. While others made the effort, this person was no show. This person has missed or avoided or not bothered with several other events in the recent past without a message or post-event apology. A relationship should be two-way but if they don't care or can't be bothered; maybe I can't be bothered anymore either.
If you read that and your internal voice was saying "Oh I'm sorry, there's plenty more fish in the sea"; then you were sympathizing. While your thoughts on other fish/friends are true, it doesn't share the pain and make that connection. If your reply was "I can feel how angry and how sad it feels. I'm here." then you were empathizing.
It's not easy. Much as it isn't easy to give up and cut loose someone who doesn't give equally to a friendship. Perhaps this part is even harder: you have to make a concerted effort to look after yourself so you can recharge your empathetic battery. If you are worn down and clobbered, then you won't have the emotional gusto to support yourself or give to those friendships and relationships around you.
If you'd like to read more on empathy, have a look at this fab article: https://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/EmpathyatWork.htm
Why not start a conversation with a loved one, friend, or colleague this week- ask them how they are doing and offer them that listening ear, should they need it.— Mental Health First Aid England (@MHFAEngland) December 1, 2020
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