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Sympathy & empathy
Most people have some idea of what sympathy and empathy mean.
But are they correct?
Somebody suffers a grievance and people send their condolences.
This is the general notion of 'sympathy' - a show of respect and comradeship.
People usually interpret 'empathy' to mean that they are actually sharing the same emotions as somebody else.
Is this even possible?
In the 1980's sci-fi show Star Trek: The Next Generation, an alien woman called Counsellor Deanna Troi possessed telepathic abilities.
She couldn't hear other character's thoughts but she could experience their emotions.
The important point here is that Counsellor Troi is a fictional character and her emotional telepathy is make-believe...
Her ability to share other people's emotions is sci-fi fantasy.
Let's explore sympathy and empathy...
We can use a simple example - your friend has lost their job and needs to find a new one.
What is sympathy?
Your friend has lost their job.
You can quite easily and readily see the problems they are facing.
They need to find a new job, they have bills to pay, a mortgage to cover, food to buy and many other financial responsibilities.
The job market is uncertain. It is competitive. They may not be able to find work or earn what they are accustomed to.
Recognising these concerns intellectually is 'sympathy'.
You see the problems, the pitfalls and the struggles ahead of them.
It is easy to see that life may be hard for them in the short-term and they may be facing long-term difficulties.
What is empathy?
Empathy is the realisation that losing their job will be causing your friend stress and upset.
They may feel insecure, vulnerable, volatile, frustrated, redundant, useless... Their behaviour may be erratic and confused.
Rather than expect them to be themselves, you realise that things have changed for them.
It is likely to be a time of emotional turmoil.
Seeing the situation
Sympathy enables us to intellectually grasp the situation and see how it presents all manner of problems.
Empathy is about seeing that your friend is likely to need emotional support, help and understanding.
Most people seem to think that sympathy and empathy are about 'relating to' the other person's predicament.
As though you are an expert-by-experience... This is foolish. And presumptive.
Imagine that a person loses their job and feels relieved to be finally free of an unpleasant work situation. Another individual may feel suicidal.
We are all different. One size does not fit all.
Assuming that everyone responds to situations the same way is somewhat naive. Assuming that the situation is even the same is problematic.
It is not about you
Besides... it is not about you.
You are not the one in pain. You are not the one who is struggling. Your friend is.
Making everything about you is not sympathetic at all. Nor a show of empathy. You are merely thinking about yourself and how you would feel.
Are you an empath?
Counsellor Troi was an empath. She could feel other people's emotions. Can you really make the same claim? Are you a fictional telepathic sci-fi alien TV character?
You are a human being.
The best way that you can show sympathy and empathy is to remember that it is not about you. It is about the other person.
Pay attention to their situation. Their problems. Their needs.
Don't make it all about you.
Compassion arises when you stop thinking about yourself and start thinking about the other person.
Having an emotional response is fine providing it is in reference to the other person's situation rather than about you.
Let your emotions guide you down a path of kindness and consideration.
There are many definitions of both
and presumably people have constructed careers out of the debates. I think
sympathy can be shown to people but empathy cannot - it can be felt, and
your response to what you feel manifest in compassion for instance.
Some people are more empathic than others, that is they are more sensitive to their own emotional changes when they encounter someone in distress for instance. You may feel sad when a friend is sad, and so there is alignment in this. However, you may feel anxious when they are sad but it is still an empathic response. So yes, you donít feel their pain but rather your own, if you are open to it. It applies to joy as well and that is a key point.
Sympathy is almost invariably with respect to negative states and loss, but empathy applies to any emotional state.
(Dr David Cousins)
18 April 2005
Last updated 17 September 2019