Empathy vs Sympathy

Empathy is understood as the ability to mutually experience the thoughts, emotions, and direct experience of others without them being directly communicated intentionally.

Sympathy is a feeling of care and understanding for suffering beings.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this.

Recently I’ve had some trials which I can’t get into but which have been tough for me to absorb.  Being single I have leaned more on my friends than ever before.  What has amazed me the most is the empathy I’ve felt.  Not just sympathy (a feeling of caring) but empathy, someone truly experiencing my thoughts, emotions and experiences.  Is there a greater gift we can give than empathy?  The hard times in life are almost always made harder by their accompanying loneliness.

What’s really impressed me is people that I thought for sure would not understand how I feel, have been amazingly empathetic. Having empathy allows you to focus on the feelings of others and less on the situation at hand. You could in fact think the person is quite wrong and behaving incorrectly but with empathy you are focusing on how they feel, what thoughts are in their heart.   Seeing all the empathy given me of late, makes me want to improve that virtue in my own life. Not just be sympathetic but empathetic as well.

When you are single I think it is easier than ever to feel lonely and that nobody understands.   You have no ready companion to share your thoughts with and this can be lonely.  Thank goodness God has given me great friends who never let me feel alone that long.

I remember when I was so unhappy at my old job.  Every day I would come home angry, resentful, depressed, and frustrated and it felt like there was a dark cloud over my life.   Some people would have a hard time even sympathizing with my situation let alone empathizing with it.  I had a good job in a tough economy.  I worked with some nice people.  I made enough money to support myself and go to school.  I was healthy, had great friends, and a faith to lean on.  Indeed there were plenty of things to be happy about and I did my best to feel those things.

But still the problem persisted.  The sadness persisted. The anger persisted. I held it all inside (didn’t have a blog back then… 🙂 )

There were many people who showed true empathy during this time but one person sticks out.  At the time I was working at the Mt.  Timpanogas temple.  Working at the temple met so much to me and gave me such relief, but I felt conflicted.  How could I work at the temple when everyday I felt anger and resentment towards this boss.  Each day I thought I’d forgiven her and then she would find a way to rewound me.   Her disdain and criticism were unyielding- almost never giving me a chance to see her in a kinder way.

Anyway, I felt guilty for serving in the temple and feeling this way.  I decided I would have to quit because I wasn’t worthy enough.  I made an appointment with the Temple Matron (kind of the lead woman in the temple) and we chatted.  I told her how I was feeling.  She gave me some wise advice:

“The temple is not for perfect people.  The temple is for perfecting the people”.

I’ve thought about that a lot over the years.  That life is not for perfect people, its for perfecting people.  Trials are not for perfect people, its for perfecting people.  Change is not for perfect people, its for perfecting people.

The knowledge that I can work through trials and sins in my own imperfect way is so comforting.  That working through feelings and forgiveness did not make me unworthy.  It meant I was trying and that’s all we can do.  There may be instances where nobody in the world can empathize with how I really feel.  That is when I turn to Jesus Christ and He can perfectly empathize because he has felt it and believes in me perfectly.

I’m so grateful for all those that have empathized or sympathized with me.  I am so not perfect and I wish I responded perfectly to every challenge but God knows the intent of my heart.  He knows that I want to do the right thing.  He also knows the pain of my heart and even as with hating my job it might not make any sense to the world, it makes sense to him.  I started a relationship with God as my father when I was 14 and He has never abandoned me.  He has taught me, answered my questions and led me through every trial.

I like this definition of empathy by Marvin J.  Ashton, especially the last part.  I’m working on this:

“empathy is the ability to understand someone else’s feelings and to feel what he feels. Meaningful help can never be given without empathy for the recipient. This requires gaining the confidence of the person; listening with eyes, ears, and heart; trying to comprehend how this person feels; and then letting him know by your personal performance that you really understand. One who really understands and practices empathy doesn’t solve another’s problems, doesn’t argue, doesn’t top his story, make accusations, or take away free agency. He merely helps the person build his self-reliance and self-image so he can try to find his own solutions.”

Aren’t the people who treat you that way just the best? Doesn’t it mean everything just to feel that someone understands?  I know when I was sad with my job it meant everything that someone would try to see things from my perspective. This was much better than any advice I got. Being understood by God is great but being understood by the world is also wonderful.

Anyway, I hope I can try to be more empathetic with those around me.  To see things as they see them.  To listen more and be more observant of their needs.   To experience the thoughts, emotions, and direct experience of others.  That is my new goal.

3 thoughts on “Empathy vs Sympathy

  1. I’ve been thinking a lot about empathy again recently too. Every few months it really comes up for me in a major way. I am by no means perfect at interpersonal interactions or relationships. I have so many limitations in my life because of my disability and chronic pains stuff. One of the few things I feel like I can really contribute to the world is my empathy. It is still a work in progress as well. And I’d really like to find more ways to make real world changes that would help in concrete ways. But in the mean time, I hope that my caring and empathizing can support people at least a little.

    People often talk about imagining what it is like to walk in someone else’s shoes. People will talk about something terrible that happened to someone else and try to put themselves in that person’s place. That’s a good thing, don’t get me wrong. But true empathy takes it a step further than that. Rather than imagining what it would be like to be yourself but experience what someone else has experienced, you have to try to really imagine you are them. Really try to understand the entirety of their perspective. It is no easy task, and not always possible. But I think it is a good way to work on empathy.

    I wish that more people valued it. I just posted about that on facebook in frustration after seeing someone being blindly inconsiderate. But, like I said there, I am so fortunate to know many people who do value empathy and who care about those around them.

    1. I so agree Angie. Empathy is not really about seeing what others see because we can see the same things quite differently. It is feeling what they feel. In the end it doesn’t matter if we totally disagree with a person’s hurt, if we can empathize with the hurt that is a powerful thing.
      I don’t think any of us are perfect at it. We all have angry, petty, vindictive sides to us that resists empathy. We all have pride and often don’t want to feel what others feel. An easy way around feeling empathy is to create a label, so the person is a stereotype instead of a human that we need to feel for. The label gives us an excuse to not feel empathy.
      As you say, empathy is not easy. It can be incredibly difficult to feel what others feel. And I believe that sometimes only God can give you the strength to empathize and sometimes it just takes time. Time to heal wounds and forgive.
      Sometimes people view empathy as excusing bad behavior but empathy really isn’t about behavior, it is about feelings. The best person I have ever known was my Grandpa Richards and he possessed the gifts of pure love and empathy. He never excused bad behavior but he loved you, and saw the good. You wanted to be better because he loved you. I still want to be better because he loved me. That’s what empathy does. It makes us want to be better because we see the humanity in another person.
      I think it is also easy to feel others should be empathetic of you but not you of them. I’ve felt that way many times. ‘Why doesn’t she understand me?’ ‘Why does she have to get under my skin? Can’t she see I’m trying?’. Those kinds of feelings are normal but they don’t usually solve problems. They just give you an excuse to nurse a grudge until ‘they fix it’. We cannot control other people. All we can control is ourselves. If they don’t want to show empathy that is their choice. That will limit their happiness in the end. (the above paragraph is a particular trap of myself and I know it limits my happiness in many ways. I’m working on it).
      You were actually the person I was sure wouldn’t understand my recent sadness given your experience. However, you surprised me by your empathy. You looked at my hurting heart and that was it. Thanks!

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