Friday, September 9, 2011

Empathy vs. Sympathy

"Empathy" is a strange creature. It's undoubtedly a virtue, but it's largely an underrated one. This is likely because it is so closely associated with femininity, which, as everyone knows, is icky. But even so,  I think empathy is also not as widely lauded because it's a quite difficult concept to pin down. We know (or think we know) what "courage" is. Likewise for "responsibility", "respect," "honesty." We had series about them in elementary school. We hear them preached about by parents, teachers, reverends for most of our formative years. But if you polled most people about what "empathy" means, they'd likely tell you, if they say anything at all, that it's the same as sympathy. And while it is similar, it is vitally and decidedly different.

To figure out the difference, let's start with the dictionary definition of empathy: "the intellectual identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another." Put differently, empathy is a form of "experiencing" what others experience. Or it is the process of ascertaining and perhaps describing those experiences.

To start to grasp what that actually entails, I find it useful to compare empathy to sympathy. Sympathy is "harmony of or agreement in feelings, as between persons or on the part of one person with respect to another." In other words, sympathy is agreement with the feelings of another, while empathy is experiencing the feelings of another. Sympathy is a cooing "I'm sorry you stubbed your toe." Empathy is a grimacing "God, that must have hurt." Sympathy is "supporting our troops." Empathy is trying to grasp what it is like to be in combat/stationed overseas in a warzone.

I think I differ from most people in that I find empathy a great deal easier than sympathy. The reasons why are fodder for another post, but a lot of it is based upon how they're used. Sympathy is generally used to comfort or agree, while empathy is generally used to understand and validate.

Sympathizing is hard for me because I really don't think it's my place to "agree" with the way someone is feeling. 1So too, if sympathetic comfort means telling someone "it will be alright," I'd consider that shallow, privileged, or ignorant of reality. When sympathetic comfort means "I hope you get better soon," it feels as if a person has nothing left to offer me but prayers. And prayers won't bring my partner back, won't make me not want to kill myself, won't make me appreciate a body and identity that feels fundamentally incongruent with my self. "I hope you get better" is what someone says when they have nothing left to say. And often, that's all one can do. Any one of us can only do or say so much in any given context. "I hope you get better" can be really sweet, it can be a vote of support, it can show that people care when caring is the only option available to them.

But, as a therapist, I don't want to merely wish that someone will get better. I want to help them get there. And so I empathize.

Empathy is one of the most significant reasons people go to psychotherapists. A therapist doesn't just wish you well, they ideally understand you. And, with that understanding, they can validate how you feel by saying "I (mostly) understand what you're feeling and why, and I think you are entirely justified for x, y, z reasons." 2 They can propose solutions or help you come up with your own. They can find where you are and help guide you as you navigate your way through it.

Empathy makes us feel less alien. Empathy makes us feel hope. Empathy makes us feel that someone can understand us. Indeed, it is amazing how much duress comes just from the symptoms of not feeling understood. But it is equally amazing how much potential there is in simple understanding.

And that's part of why I run on empathy.

1 "Agreement:" When I say "agree with how someone is feeling" I mean when someone looks to you to see if they should feel angry or happy or sad. They often want you to say "Yes, feel angry about that football penalty! I, too, am angry about that penalty! Let us gnash our teeth and shout invective at yon official, posthaste!"

2"Validation:" When I say "validate how someone feels," I mean asserting that any given emotion is "ok" to feel. Often, people will experience a lot of self-doubt about their feelings. For instance, they may feel angry or hurt, but try to suppress the feeling for various reasons. Validation doesn't tell someone how to feel, it just tells them that what they're feeling is ok to feel. Validation might look like this: "I can understand how that football penalty would be really frustrating. Coming so close to something and then being held back can be really hard." The one validating doesn't have to have the same emotional reaction to validate, they just have to assert that it's perfectly reasonable/acceptable/appropriate for someone to feel that way.

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