Thursday, August 19, 2010

Sympathy vs. Empathy

I’m finding a lot of help lately in remembering to be more empathetic than sympathetic in my interactions with others. The subtle but important difference in the intent that these two words convey impacts how I feel, how much help I can be to others, and how centered in my own truth I am able to be. For me, responding with empathy is infinitely more healthy and productive.

A number of my family members and friends, like so many others in the world, are facing big challenges in their lives. I help them as much as I can, but there is only so much that I can do, and I feel sad about it. I have realized that my sadness doesn’t help them, and it certainly doesn’t help me. My husband reminded me yesterday about empathy rather than sympathy. Bless him.

Both sympathy and empathy express how we deal with the feelings of others, and there are numerous ways to define both words. I view sympathy as sharing the feelings of another, especially in sorrow or trouble.  I have noticed that people can sympathize with another enough to actually take on their physical symptoms.  Empathy, on the other hand,  is more recognizing or understanding the feelings of another but not sharing in their suffering.

I can, and have, been brought to my knees by sympathy. My truth takes an automatic back seat to how badly I feel about what someone else is going through, and I suffer, and it doesn’t help.  My knee-jerk reaction is to forget my most basic truth, which is that God has it all. I can't always see how, but it's covered, end of story.  I’m not sure where that deeply-heartfelt truth hides when I’m suffering for someone.  I just know that I have to dig it out from behind some very old, pervasive fear.

I believe that all that happens is contained in a divine order so perfect that we can just barely imagine it. Only with faith can we even begin to accept into our hearts the love that designed our being, with all of its ups and downs.

Through all of their struggles and changing circumstances, my loved ones remain who they are, eternal expressions of perfect love. Temporary challenges create the dichotomies that allow us, by first experiencing darkness, to know ourselves as light.

When I choose empathy rather than sympathy, I am able to offer my support in a way that serves the truth of their highest selves, instead of validating perceived limitations. Rather than succumbing to the fear that their circumstances are bigger than they are, I can support them in recognizing their dominion over their own lives.  In empathy I can let them know they are loved and not alone, and capable of more than they may be able to recognize in the moment.

May we all have people in our lives who understand what we're going through but also see the true power that we embody.  And may this tool be a blessing. . .


  1. I appreciate both your sympathy and your empathy, my friend. And your continual, gentle reminders of the bigger, Divine picture.

  2. Sherry I agree with your view here, and I see sympathy and empathy the same way. I am writing a series right now on validating. It has everything to do with empathy and sympathy. Bless your husband for reminding you not to feel sorry for another. I think it is impossible to feel sorry for another person without first feeling sorry for myself. Self-pity doesn't work well for me. I would love to have a comment from you on my series.

  3. LOVed this post. Great differnce between the two. I find myself being sympathetic -- instead of empathetic when really, I just don't care for the long term.

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