Constantly Confused: Empathy & Sympathy. The Difference & Why It Matters

Constantly Confused: Empathy & Sympathy. The Difference & Why It Matters

By Theo Winter White

“When we honestly ask ourselves which person in our lives means the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand. The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares.” ― Henri Nouwen, Out of Solitude

“I think it's impossible to really understand somebody, what they want, what they believe, and not love them the way they love themselves.” — Orson Scott Card, Ender’s Game

“[Empathy] makes the world worse." — Paul Bloom


That last quote may strike you as somewhat out of place. Empathy makes the world worse? Huh? How could that be? Yet, that’s exactly what the prominent American psychologist Paul Bloom argues in “Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion,” which led to an intellectually-charged response from several high-profile thinkers a few years back.

Despite its potential to bias and glitch our decision making (for example, people care more about a little white girl stuck down a well than about natural disasters that affect thousands in a foreign country), the majority position has been highly supportive of empathy, having been widely praised in literature, art, science, philosophy and business for over 100 years. It’s not unique to humans, either. Animal researchers such as Jane Goodall and Frans de Waal have brought to the world’s attention “increasing evidence of empathy in other species” — citing, for example, monkeys who would rather starve themselves than take food that would result in other animals being harmed.

Friends of empathy, let’s call them, argue that the faculty is essential to morality and the functioning of a healthy society, (possibly) the evolutionary basis of why humans are so smart, the most important skill you’ll ever need to succeed in business, the most crucial skill for future leaders, and the most important emotion you need to make a story succeed. White

bayhem Recommended: video essay on empathy in storytelling, “What Writers Should Learn From Game of Thrones


But what exactly is empathy, and should you care?

Here’s a spectacular example of what empathy isn’t:

“I’d hear someone say, ‘I’m so depressed,’ and I’d think, ‘Tough it out.’”

This was once the belief of figure skating champion, Gracie Gold, who, as detailed in a powerful New York Times piece, couldn’t comprehend mental illness… until the day it happened to her. Gracie’s heart-breaking story epitomises the journey from mundane apathy, from not understanding, or only sort of being vaguely half-aware of some aspect of the human experience in the abstract, to having a deep, visceral, life-shattering realisation of Ah-ha. That’s what it’s like.

If anything can be said to define the human experience, it’s the desire to matter and be truly seen by others; to not feel alone. Stephen Covey, who wrote what is arguably the most influential business book of the 20th century (The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People), said that the deepest hunger of the human heart is to be understood. Oprah, arguably the most admired and powerful voice in popular culture, once shared the common denominator in 35,000 interviews — from Presidents and celebrities, “from Beyoncé and all of her Beyoncéness” to housewives and strangers — she noticed they all followed the same basic recurring loop of concern:

“… they all want to know one thing: was that okay? Did you hear me? Do you see me? Did what I say mean anything to you?”

Empathy is just this: Having some inkling of what someone else is going through, intellectually or emotionally.

Empathy, however, is not to be confused with its close cousin-concept, sympathy.

In this RSA Animate with over 10 million views, best-selling author and all-around unforgettable speaker/story teller Brené Brown explains the essential difference between empathy and sympathy, and why empathy (and not sympathy) is more likely to create genuine human connection. If you’re anything like me and find yourself automatically going into “problem solve” mode whenever you hear someone has a gripe about life and you just want to tell them what they need to do instead, then watching this video may cause you to pause and reflect on what a despicable, unfeeling monster you are. White


So what is empathy, and why is it very different than sympathy? Empathy fuels connection. Sympathy drives disconnection. Empathy — it’s very interesting. Teresa Wiseman is a nursing scholar who studied professions, very diverse professions, where empathy is relevant and came up with four qualities of empathy:

perspective taking, the ability to take the perspective of another person or recognise their perspective as their truth; staying out of judgement — not easy when you enjoy it as much as most of us do; recognising emotion in other people; and then communicating that.

Empathy is feeling with people. And to me, I always think of empathy as this kind of sacred space when someone is kind of in a deep hole, and they shout out from the bottom and they say, “I’m stuck. It’s dark. I’m overwhelmed." And then we look and we say, "Hey," and climb down. "I know what it’s like down here, and you’re not alone.”

Sympathy is, “Ooh, it’s bad, uh-huh? You wanna sandwich?” Empathy is a choice, and it’s a vulnerable choice, because in order to connect with you, I have to connect with something in myself that knows that feeling. Rarely, if ever, does an empathic response begin with “at least.” And we do it all the time, because you know what, someone just shared something with us that’s incredibly painful, and we’re trying to silver lining it. I don’t think that’s a verb, but I’m using it as one. We’re trying to put the silver lining around it. So...

“I had a miscarriage.” “Oh, at least you know you can get pregnant.”

“I think my marriage is falling apart.” “At least you have a marriage.”

“John’s getting kicked out of school.” “At least Sarah is an A student.”

But one of the things we do sometimes in the face of very difficult conversations is we try to make things better. If I share something you that’s very difficult, I’d rather you say, “I don’t even know what to say right now. I’m just so glad you told me.” Because the truth is rarely can a response make something better. What makes something better is connection.


White About the Author Theo Winter works as Client Manager, Writer & Researcher for DTS International. He enjoys a wide range of movie genres including Science Fiction, Science Fiction Action, Science Fiction Adventure, and Science Fiction Thriller. By far the most important thing you need to know about Theo is that his favourite colour is yellow.



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