Empathy and Sympathy. Two words, that many of us take to be synonymous.
Sure – they both mean being there when someone is in need right? Isn’t it a good trait to demonstrate sympathy when a friend is going through a tough time?
Well, you’d think so.
But when you actually stop to analyse the difference between sympathy and empathy you may change your mind.
Let’s start by looking at the straight definitions of these two similar, rhyming words.
To be honest, that doesn’t really help with distinguishing the two. Grammartist goes a little further:
When you understand and feel another’s feelings for yourself, you have empathy. It’s often spoken of as a character attribute that people have to varying degrees. For example, if hearing a tragic news story makes you feel almost as if the story concerns you personally, you have the ability to empathize.
When you sympathize with someone, you have compassion for that person, but you don’t necessarily feel her feelings.
As the definition suggests, sympathy is having compassion for a person, without feeling their feelings. What is wrong with that?
The best way to really analyse this is to look at sympathy in action.
Person A: I think Steve doesn’t love me anymore.
Person B: At least he still pays the bills.
Person A: I have had a miscarriage.
Person B: At least you know you can get pregnant.
Person A: I cannot stand my boss.
Person B: At least you have a job.
I am sure you can see a pattern emerging there. Person B could be speaking with gently, with love and compassion, but it still comes across as cold. There is no connection, no willingness to open up and really feel what the person is saying.
It is really little more than an attempt to silver line the individual’s moment of sadness.
Sympathy is also characterised by a suggestion or attempt to make everything better – which is very rarely what the individual in question needs in order to feel better.
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