Empathy vs Sympathy

Empathy vs Sympathy

Recently I was shown an animated video (You can see it here) which made me seriously reflect on the difference between empathy and sympathy and how I engage with each of them. I’ve always known the differences in dictionary definitions between the two, but until it was laid out visually for me, I hadn’t realised just how important these differences are.

I don’t know if it’s true for everyone, but I was always taught, as I grew up, that I should sympathise with others if they were troubled or concerned. So that’s what I did – I acknowledged other people’s concerns and tried my best to console them. What I know now is that there is a lot that is fundamentally wrong with sympathy, especially if you are genuinely trying to help. A dictionary tells us that sympathy is the feeling of pity or sorrow for someone else’s misfortune. This definition in itself is worrying… ‘pity’? I don’t know about you, but when I’m down and need a friend, the last thing I want to receive, especially from someone close, is pity.

The more I was thinking about what sympathy really is, I began to remember how often at school I was told to sympathise with literary characters. ‘Poor Jane Eyre, she really did have a tough upbringing didn’t she?’ This is definitely not a direct quote from a teacher, but the point I’m making is that Jane was verbally and physically abused as a child, subsequently oppressed at school, and we were asked to…sympathise. I understand that Jane is a fictional character and all, but what is she going to gain from my pity and sorrow? A really unhelpful friend, I’d say.

What Jane needed was empathy. Again, don’t take my reference too literally, I will not try to rewrite a great, classic novel, but for empathy’s sake, Jane’s oppressive situation is useful. Empathy is: knowing what another person is feeling; feeling what another person is feeling; and responding compassionately to another person. Now, if I had been asked to empathise with Jane, I would have gained a better understanding of her issues and been able to take responsibility, as a friend, for helping her as much as I could, to improve or even alleviate them.

I’m sure we all recognise the phrase stating that empathy is ‘putting yourself in someone else’s shoes’. It’s a helpful analogy and refers back to the idea of feeling what another person is feeling. But empathy also goes further, to give honesty and realistic advice to another person. This is what the video really implemented for me – it showed a fox beneath a dark, raining cloud having fallen down a hole in the ground. Sympathy, in the form of a moose, pokes its head through the hole, from outside, and notices the fox’s bad situation, but does nothing to remedy it. Empathy on the other hand, in the form of a bear, climbs down into the hole, stands with the fox, gains the same dark cloud above its head, and embraces him.

What’s important to remember is that even if you can’t find the remedy for another person’s situation, you can and should still empathise with them. Giving honest and real advice is so important – hearing the words ‘oh don’t worry, it’ll be fine’ are not helpful if you and the other person know that that’s not true. Real problems are complex and it’s so much nicer to hear ‘you’re in a really tough situation and I’m not sure when it will get easier, but I’m here and I’m not going anywhere.’

So whenever someone nearby is struggling and needs a friend, try not to be sympathetic. Be as empathetic and supportive as you can, and work through their problems as if they were your own. It can be hard sometimes to imagine yourself in certain difficult situations, but sometimes all it takes is being fully there for someone, with all of your honesty and rationality, to give them hope that things will be okay.

Written by Chloe, a fabulous Tender Intern

Chloe is a drama student at Queen Mary University. She is from Essex but plans to stay in London and make the most of the opportunities available in the city, e.g. working for Tender and meeting new people with the same passion for theatre. She also enjoys improvising dark comedy sketches with her best friend in their uni rooms whenever they’re bored.

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