Empathy is formally defined as the action of understanding, being aware of, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another person. In comparison, sympathy is defined as feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else’s misfortune. While these terms are sometimes used interchangeably, it is important to notice the difference — with empathy we step inside another person’s shoes and experience what they are going through firsthand. Sympathy, on the other hand, is a more superficial experience by comparison where we merely feel sorry for someone without truly taking on what the situation might be like. With empathy we more quickly align with others, share in their challenge, and provide comfort by working to understand what they must be going through in the moment. Empathy is quite powerful, and is often at the heart of healing, strong relationships with others, and pulling through tough times together.
By developing an empathic mindset, we proactively work to understand the magnitude of what another person is experiencing and thus gain a more complete picture of their unique experience. Not only is this effort appreciated by friends and family, it also allows us to begin to assess and problem-solve together, often resulting in optimal results and less stress. While you may not be a mental health clinician, there is still great value in developing empathy — Dr Carl Rogers, founder of Person Centered Therapy offers additional clinical insights below:
“The state of empathy, or being empathic, is to perceive the internal frame of reference of another with accuracy and with the emotional components and meanings which pertain thereto as if one were the person, but without ever losing the ‘as if’ condition. Thus it means to sense the hurt or the pleasure of another as he senses it and to perceive the causes thereof as he perceives them…to sense the client’s private world as if it were your own…to sense the clients’ anger, fear or confusion as if it were your own, yet without your own anger, fear or confusion getting bound up in it.”
Applying Roger’s therapeutic modality to simply being a good, kind friend to others you might conceptualize it as follows (least effective to most effective):
- Paying no attention to another person’s pain and discomfort.
- Offering sympathy to someone (essentially feeling sorry for their situation)
- Displaying empathy toward the circumstance the person is experiencing and feeling firsthand what it must be like to experience their stress.
We all know someone in our life right now that could use our empathy to help with what they are going through, and the effort we make to connect with them might be the boost they need to get through tough times.
These are tough times and many of us personally know friends and family that could use a hand in helping them get through their distress. Rather than ignoring or simply feeling sorry for them, try instead to understand their problem through their perspective and provide healthy empathy to help. Often the boost of confidence people receive from experiencing empathy is enough to help them see their situation differently, revisit problem-solving solutions, and ultimately resolve their situation.