Empathy vs. Sympathy

Let’s play a game. If you were told that you can sympathize with someone or empathize with them, which one would you think is better?

If I looked at most dialogue around emotions I would say the vast majority of people would answer empathy. There are articles and videos about how awesome empathy is.  But lately sympathy seems to be getting the short end of the stick. People often talk about how empathy is better than sympathy, or suggest that sympathy doesn’t have a place in social justice discussions because it’s condescending.

Let’s recap the basic differences between empathy and sympathy, since they’re often conflated and confused. Empathy is when you feel with someone. If your friend tells you that they’re sad because their cat died and you feel sadness as well, you’re empathizing with them. Sympathy on the other hand is having compassion for someone, or feeling something for/towards someone without taking on their feelings as your own. If my friend and I get in an argument and I can eventually understand her position I might be able to sympathize with her, but my own feelings may not change.

For a long time, sympathy was king of the hill, and in recent years empathy has grown to be the prized ability. Especially in social justice circles, I see minority and oppressed individuals pushing allies to try empathizing. The empathy is what allows others to understand the harm of their behaviors, to get motivated to make changes, or to see how sometimes good intentioned behaviors feel awful.

Especially in these contexts, sympathy is considered pitying and useless.

But there are some instances where sympathy is actually incredibly useful, or where empathy isn’t called for at all. I want to take the time to remember what the benefits of sympathy are, and to hopefully tease apart some instances in which sympathy is called for or when empathy is called for.

Now before I get into this conversation I want to make something very clear. No one gets to tell you if your feelings are appropriate to a situation or not. No other person has the right to police your opinions or tell you that you’re feeling the wrong way about something. However it may be true that your own emotions are not helping you act effectively or be safe, and in those cases an outside opinion can be helpful.

First and foremost, sympathy can be a helpful way to build into empathy. If you look at something like police brutality and you don’t yourself feel afraid and angry but you do feel sad for the people involved, that can be a first impetus to start learning more and putting yourself in the shoes of the people directly involved. This is especially one of those circumstances where it could be helpful to not quash sympathy (because it’s not good enough) but to push people to really listen to that sympathy and let it build into empathy.

Now empathy on the other hand is often more helpful when it comes to listening to other people, to building connections with other people, to being supportive. Especially with friends and family, it may seem easy to try to offer solutions when they open up, but sometimes all they want is a little empathy and an open ear. And when it comes to movements that feeling of being listened to is often incredibly important. It gives allies the knowledge to speak up when necessary, but to also understand when they need to be quiet.

While sympathy might push you to listen for a while, it doesn’t get you to internalize the feelings in the way empathy does, which means your feelings will always be taking priority over the feelings of the other.

So when is sympathy actually a better option?

Let me tell you a little story. Once upon a time I was very sick. I had an eating disorder and I was in the process of slowly trying to kill myself. However I didn’t really care. I felt little to no attachment to the world and didn’t have any desire to get better.

If someone at the time had truly empathized with me they would have felt awful, but they wouldn’t have had any motivation to push me into treatment. They would have understood how terrifying the possibility of recovery was, how much I just wanted to be left alone, how much I hated it when anyone mentioned that I should change my behaviors.

So instead of empathizing, my mother sympathized with me. She saw and understood that I was in pain, but instead of feeling that along with me she felt anger towards the eating disorder on my behalf. She felt fear of losing me and a strong desire to protect me. Because she sympathized with me instead of empathized with me, she chose to push me to get treatment and I am still alive and kicking today. Thanks Mom!

There are instances in which a person’s emotions aren’t keeping them safe. Abusive relationships are often (though not always) an example of this. People who are addicted to drugs or alcohol often have this kind of problem. And sometimes these instances are much smaller, like when one friend warns another not to go out with that guy, he’s actually a jerk. If your emotions are telling you that what you’re doing is totally the best course of action and someone you love and trust sympathizes instead of empathizing to tell you “hey, it looks like you’re hurting yourself,” that sympathy is way more effective than empathy.

Now again, it’s probably important to have facility with both skills. If you just sympathize and don’t understand what is really pushing the other person to behave the way they do, you are highly likely to make the situation worse. If my mom had empathized a bit more she might have found some more effective and less scary ways to get me help (or maybe not because I still have no idea what an effective method of pushing someone to get treatment is).

The important part is knowing that empathy and sympathy have different roles. Empathy is often the piece that gets you to listen and understand. Sympathy can be great for integrating your own feelings and perspective with someone else’s. So let’s get a little more love for sympathy.

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