We've probably all been shown both sentiments from others when we are going through a difficult situation, whether we've known the difference or not. Maybe we've all shown those same sentiments ourselves, to our own loved ones during their times of heartbreak...
Google defines SYMPATHY as follows:
1. feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else's misfortune
the formal expression of pity or sorrow for someone else's misfortune; condolences
2. understanding between people; common feeling
support in the form of shared feelings or opinions
agreement with or approval of an opinion or aim; a favorable attitude
relating harmoniously to something else; in keeping
the state or fact of responding in a way similar or corresponding to an action elsewhere
Sounds like a pretty good trait to exhibit right? I mean, it all seems lovely, doesn't it?
Google defines EMPATHY as follows:
1. the ability to understand and share the feelings of another
Simple as that.
Really, those two terms seem to be interchangeable when you see them on paper. But in real life situations, I think there's a huge difference between showing sympathy for a person and having empathy for them. (Notice how I said 'showing sympathy' and 'having empathy'? Well, it's because I think sympathy is just that: a big show. But let's get back to those definitions for a second...)
Have you ever had one of those experiences when someone is telling you something or explaining a situation and you can totally tell they are lying because they are just over explaining things? Giving you way too many weightless details and giving the same information over and over using different words? We've all been there, right? That person was probably thinking they sounded really convincing, when in actuality, everything came out more like word vomit. I feel that way about the definition of sympathy. Too much, Google, too much.
On the other hand, think about the definition I got for empathy... Simple. Conclusive. Direct.
If you haven't seen THIS VIDEO about the power of empathy, you've missed out.
She states that "empathy fuels connection, sympathy drives disconnection"
If you're driving down the road and you see a car wreck, and you gawk as you drive by hoping to catch a gory glimpse of carnage for your entertainment, there's no empathy for those people who might be injured. There's no connection there. If, however, you drive by and pray for the safety of those passengers, take a look in the rear view mirror at you kids and thank God for their safety because maybe you've been there, and then make sure you're being a cautious, courteous driver, you've made a connection with those people and what happened to them. No, you didn't have to stop and be the hero that pulls them from the wreckage to make that connection.
But empathy isn't about just seeing someone else's misfortune and learning from it or praying for them. It's about truly putting yourself in their position and sharing that heartache. In the video, she talks about the 4 qualities of empathy: perspective taking, staying out of judgement, recognizing emotions in others, and communicating. Empathy is not only feeling FOR people, it's feeling WITH people, like is explained in the video.
Perhaps my favorite part of that video is when she says, "rarely, if ever, does an empathic response begin with 'at least'" ... In my own situation, I hear this way too often.
"At least Kannon doesn't have it too"
"At least she doesn't have more problems"
"At least she's not in pain all the time"
"At least she can smile a little"
"At least you can make all her choices for her"
"At least she doesn't talk back like my daughter"
"At least you don't have to chase her all over the grocery store"
Another thing I come across all the time, especially over social media, is the one-upping. People try to top your story with their own, in turn, basically calling the attention back to them and leaving you feeling more alone and desperate than before they opened their mouth. No doubt those people want to help you feel better, but it just doesn't work like that. If I am feeling overwhelmed about London having two seizures one night, telling me about your child that has ten seizures per night doesn't help. Yes, there is a certain perspective that can come with me knowing about your child, but it doesn't negate my feelings.
When I had my (very early) miscarriage, I was speaking to a few family members about it and one of them said to me, "I hope it never happens to me" and with that, was pretty much done with the conversation. Was that empathy? No way! She pitied me. Obviously nobody wants heartbreak to come to them; we don't wish for our own misfortune. But to be so casual and flippant about a person's trials is not in any way empathetic.
Don't try to put a silver lining around people's heartache. Share your stories with them, yes. Let them know you have been there, but only if you HAVE been there!
Sharing similar experiences can be helpful, except when it comes from a selfish place. If you want the attention redirected onto you, that's a selfish place. If you are 'one-upping' that person with your more horrific story, that's a selfish place.
Empathy is a little more spiritual, in my opinion; more humble. I don't think empathy can exist without humility. I do believe that sympathy can motivate a lot of good deeds to be done... but the core of those deeds is probably a little on the selfish side; more arrogant... the deed-doer wants to make themselves feel good, and helping the less-fortunate just happens to be a side effect of that.
I could probably never explain things as well as the woman in the video does... but here's my take on it in a nutshell:
Sympathy is REJECTION of a person's situation. We see what they're going through, we can acknowledge it, we can feel sorry for them, but in the end, we let the thought leave our mind because such a sad thing could just never happen to us. We reject that scenario.
Empathy is REACTION to that situation. We see them suffering, we acknowledge it, we make a connection with it, and we share that heartache with them. We help carry the burden. We don't do it because we want to feel good about ourselves by being a hero; we do it only because we feel their emotions as our own.