Friday, August 19, 2011

The difference between sympathy and empathy

Sympathy and empathy are not the same thing. Most people use the words interchangeably, but there are subtle differences. Why is the distinction important? I'm not really sure. I needed something to write on my blog. But seriously, here is why I think it's important: sympathy is by-and-large a personality trait, mostly available to people who fall on the "feeling" side of personality tests, whereas empathy is a learned practice, which gives hope to those of us on the "thinking" side of things.

As always, the definitions are fluid and the two experiences are not mutually exclusive (that could be my blog's tag line). But here are a couple of working definitions:

Sympathy is feeling the same feeling as someone else who is experiencing distressing emotions. If you are sad, I feel sad. If you are grieving, I feel grief. The response is mostly automatic. I don't choose to be sympathetic; sympathy happens to me. This is why there is a physiological application of sympathy. Organs work "sympathetically" with one another. An action in an organ produces a reaction in another organ. If you ever watch House, you know that a condition present in one part of the body can produce unexpected reactions in other parts of the body. The human body is dependent on sympathy. My favorite sympathetic reaction? The yawn. If one person yawns, I yawn in "sympathy" with her. This is why you should never look at another woman, especially a really tired one, when you're sitting in a restaurant with your wife.

You can also experience sympathy on a belief level. If someone believes that the way to economic recovery is through debt reduction, and you agree with that position, then you are in sympathy with that person.

On an emotional level, I am not a naturally sympathetic person. Note that this is NOT a moral situation. A more naturally sympathetic person is not a better person than someone who is not. In fact, I would argue that my lack of inherent emotional sympathy helps me thrive as a hospice chaplain, because emotionally distressing situations do not naturally produce pain or distress in me. The exception is when I encounter a man who is losing his wife. I can sit for hours with a woman who is about to become a widow, and not personally experience grief, but if I spend 2 minutes with a man who is about to become a widower, I am wrecked. Game over. Place head between knees and rock back and forth. That is a sympathetic reaction. A really socially awkward one.

Empathy, on the other hand, is paying attention to and trying to understand another person's feelings. As far as I understand, empathy can happen with both painful and pleasurable feelings. I can make an effort to understand someone's grief as well as someone's joy. It's more of an intellectual undertaking than an automatic emotional response. The practice of empathy involves temporarily taking on another person's internal situation. To coin a phrase, it involves "walking a mile in their shoes."

To practice empathy will involve asking questions: "What brought on this rush of grief? Was there a trigger?" And paraphrasing and repeating back: "I hear that you feel really alone and that you feel most lonely at night."

You can also empathically understand someone on a belief level. If you are Keynesian, and you think the way to economic recovery is through government spending, you will not be in sympathy with someone who thinks big government gets in the way, but you can learn about their position and understand it from their perspective. That would involve empathizing with their position. I'm really not sure why the economy is playing the analogical role in this post. Perhaps it's because I would like to see a lot more empathy in our political system. Or maybe I'm just trying to impress people by inserting "Keynesian" into everyday conversation.

Neither sympathy nor empathy is a superior trait, but empathy is something that can be learned. I also think the practice of empathy can help us keep better emotional boundaries. At the same time, sometimes a truly sympathetic response from someone can help us feel less alone.

What is your understanding of the difference between empathy and sympathy? 

Are you a more sympathetic person or empathetic person?