Empathy and sympathy are both are emotions, and both have a behavioral (verbal) component that communicates either empathy or sympathy to others. In the simplest of terms, empathy while experienced internally is directed outward toward another and demonstrates true understanding of the other (without one’s personal bias interfering with the understanding) while sympathy is internally directed and about the individual’s own “stuff” and emotional state. Empathy is focused on you the other person, and sympathy is focused on me. I know it seems like sympathy focuses on another, but in actuality it is a reaction to the other and not understanding of another. From a mental health perspective empathy is very healing and sympathy is not (although often people say they like people to be sympathetic). Sympathy in a clinical (therapeutic) relationship is mostly harmful.
1. The emotion of empathy is comprised of an internal experience of feeling caring, concern, compassion and understanding toward another human being (or living creature).
2. The verbal behavior of communicating empathy is what is commonly referred to as reflective listening, active listening, or empathic responding. For example, you truly understand how someone feels and experience empathy toward them when you respond by saying, “You sound upset, hurt, excited, sad, disappointed, etc.” The other person experiences (“feels”) your empathy through your true understanding.
An empathic person demonstrates understanding by listening and then letting the other know that they get it, understand, and care. Offering advice, for example, while sometimes thought to be empathic, is actually in the service of the giver of the advice feeling good for giving advice and does not show empathy for the other. Empathy is verbally best communicated by repeating the words (in a reflective not parroting way) back to the other. For example, “I know you are hurt because he/she did not call you back.”
When it comes to expressing empathy, reflective listening truly helps by demonstrating understanding. Responding by saying back what one heard from the other person, especially attending to their feelings, demonstrates focusing on the person and letting go of internal distractions. For example, “You are really hurt (sad, excited, anxious, disappointed, angry, etc.) because your friend did not include you.”
While listening without responding can be empathic, when truly “listening” you free yourself from your own distractions such as your thoughts of what you would do, the advice you want to share, and the questions you want to ask. If you can clear your mind and truly listen, you are offering a deeply empathic gift to the other person.
1. The emotion of sympathy is “my experience of (reaction to) your situation.” The other person may or may not feel the way that I feel as I react to them. Sympathy lacks understanding of the other. Sympathy is my emotional reaction (my stuff) to your situation, and that blocks me from being understanding of your experience which would be empathic.
2. The behavior of communicating sympathy is sharing one’s emotional experience with the other. For example, “I feel sorry you are in that situation.” Or “I get angry just hearing how you are being treated.” Or “It bothers me that you cannot find a job.” In these statements one is expressing how he/she feels in relation to the other’s issues. When you feel sympathetic you lose sensitivity to the other person’s distress. Your “stuff” inhibits your ability to be understanding of the other’s experience.
3. Being sympathetic takes the focus from the person in distress and focuses on the listener’s response. When I am sympathetic I get caught up in my emotional reaction to how you are experiencing the world. This, for the most part, does not demonstrate any understanding of the person in distress.
If you want to truly be helpful to another, listen to what that person is saying and respond by demonstrating that you “get” what they are saying without allowing your internal stuff to inhibit your understanding. Say, “I can hear how upset you are that your friend has not been responding to your texts or emails,” rather than I feel awful, sad, sorry that your firned is not responding. Also avoid advice such as. “Have you tried…” Advice is a topic for another discussion 🙂