Sympathy is the ability to feel pity or sorrow for someone’s bad situation. Sympathy helps us care for people when we otherwise would have no clue about how they are feeling. Let us look at a homeless person. I have had the good fortune to have never been homeless. Since I have never been homeless or known anyone who has, I cannot begin to understand that person’s struggles. I can only say that this person is struggling. Sympathy is a positive trait because without sympathy, our ability to care about people we do not fully understand would be impaired and society would break down.
How Empathy is Different
Empathy means to understand another person emotionally. In other words, feeling what they feel. This is the highest form of compassion there is because empathy allows you to fully understand that person and the situation they are in. An example is a person grieving the death of someone close to them. For most of us, we can imagine how one feels losing a loved one since it’s a universal human experience. We can imagine the pain and suffering that person is going through.
The major difference between sympathy and empathy has everything to do with equality. When I am sympathetic, I am placing my situation as better than yours. Therefore, in the example of the homeless person, I had never been homeless and only know what it is like to have a home. The thought of anything else would be horrible and seeing a person living that way makes me feel sorry for them. This does not make me a bad person since it drives me to try to help that person.
To be empathetic on the other hand, means to get down to the other person’s level by placing their experience as your own experience. In the example of the grieving person, saying things like “I can understand how hurt you are to lose such an important person in your life”. I do not feel sorry for that person because I am right there with that person. Placing us on the same level and the intimacy that empathy creates, is a powerful way to make someone feel understood and loved.
Why empathy and sympathy matter in relationships
In relationships, this is an important distinction because anyone who says “I feel sorry for you” to their partner, can already know where I am going with this.
Showing pity for your partner can cause really hurt feelings. I am sure 95 percent of you reading this want to be understood and loved by your partners and vice versa. Feeling sorry for people is great but not with your partner, because it tells them you are better than they are or you care but not enough to understand them, leaving them feeling hurt and disconnected from you. If this happens enough times we see couples who become emotionally disconnected because no one understands each other or stop communicating feelings all together. A doomsday scenario I know, but one that is avoidable if you remember to take the time to show empathy rather than sympathy.
A person can be empathetic to their partner even if they never experienced the situation and have no idea how they feel. A person providing sympathy would listen and say, “wow, that’s terrible” while the empathetic person would say, “I have not been through that before but I would really like to understand how you felt/are feeling about what happened so I can understand what you are going through.”
Showing you are authentic in wanting to be empathetic and just the effort of someone trying to be empathetic can make a person feel special, even if you fall short of true empathy.
The difference between sympathy and empathy seems to be a small thing, I know. Being empathetic rather then sympathetic can add up to build a beautiful bond between you and your partner/s. Therefore, by being empathetic rather than sympathetic, you can go a long way toward a happier relationship. Remember your partner wants to be understood and accepted not pitied.
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