Sympathy versus empathy – which do you have when someone you know or meet is experiencing difficulty or loss? When thinking of Sympathy, what comes to your mind? Many people think of it only in terms of feeling sorry for someone because of a loss or misfortune.
Where Do You Stand?
Let me first ask you:
- Do you have compassion and concern for other people when they have misfortune? Some people seem to always be finding those that are in need of help. They find them then do everything in their power to help them. Is that you?
- Do you find yourself often in the role of giving comfort, support, or encouragement? You have your senses in tune with the feelings of others and always know just what to say to lift someone’s spirits. Is that you?
- Are you the first one to offer help when someone is in trouble? You are not going to just stand by and do nothing when someone needs help. You determine how to help them and then do it. Is that you?
- Do you become concerned when you find a stray cat or dog and have to find a home for it? You know that little animal has feelings too. It is lost and lonely. It is hungry and afraid and needs a safe warm place to sleep. You take it upon yourself to try to find its owner or find it a permanent home. Is this you?
- Do you sometimes put yourself in a bind to help because you don’t want someone else to get hurt? Although you know that you don’t have the time or the money to do what needs to be done to help, you will go ahead to do your best anyway. Is this you?
If any of the above 5 illustrations apply to you, then you have a good supply of natural “Sympathy” for others. Yes! That means you ARE a caring person and show your sympathy without any questions asked. I say this because the short definition of the word “Sympathy”, according to Merriam Webster dictionary, is:
- “The feeling that you care about and are sorry about someone else’s trouble, grief, misfortune, etc.”
The second part of the definition involves a sympathetic feeling. This means a feeling of support for something or someone.
- “A state in which different people share the same interest, opinions, goals, etc.”
The Other Side of the Coin
Now, let me ask you this:
- Maybe, instead of having sympathy for others, you are indifferent and unconcerned about others. You may believe that no one ever did anything for you. You feel, therefore, that you shouldn’t be bothered with someone else’s problems.
- Maybe you have the attitude of “every man for himself” or believe in the “survival of the fittest.” You tell yourself that you have worked hard to get where you are, and why should you, for example, help that new office worker learn the ropes – He will just be after your job next!
- Maybe you are convinced that, after all, in this modern age we are encouraged to look out for ourselves first, right? Otherwise, who will?
If any of the above 3 illustrations apply to you, then you are indifferent to and unconcerned about others. No! You do not possess natural sympathy, because you are too self-absorbed and could care less about other people’s pains and hurts.
To Have or Not To Have Sympathy
What causes one person to be so caring and sympathetic and the next to simply not give a hoot? There are probably as many reasons as there are people. Here are some examples:
- We are all different to begin with.
- We have had different experiences in life.
- We have been nurtured or shunned or somewhere in between.
- We have different levels of being able to understand another human being.
I think that most people fall somewhere between the two extremes of having too much sympathy and a total indifference. Most of us do have sympathy for other people or for animals and show it in a number of ways.
- We have friends with whom we do show kindness and consideration.
- We try to give support when they are having a tough time.
In short, what I am saying is that when someone has an obvious misfortune most of us will try to sympathize in some way. However, natural “Sympathy” is much more than just feeling sorry for someone. It is a compassion that involves action. Speaking a gentle word, Sending a card, offering a helping hand, showing consideration or kindness are just some of the ways that we can show sympathy.
The Most Common Culprit
A common obstacle to “Sympathy” is a lack of “Empathy.” No, they are not quite the same thing! I once overheard a lady asking for prayer and she was obviously distressed. I waited as she was talking with a group of friends. She went on to explain to her friends that there were two different houses that she was considering buying. She liked them both and was distressed because she had to make a decision. She was afraid of making the wrong choice.
That was a problem that I had never experienced, which made it difficult for me to put myself into her shoes. Considering her obvious distress, I had assumed that her problem was more personal. I thought that perhaps it was an illness or a family problem. Instead, I felt she should be thankful that she had a choice that she could make.
Sympathy Versus Empathy Comparison
What I lacked, in the above example, is called empathy, which prevented me from putting myself in her shoes. Her distress was quite real. Making a huge purchase like a home is a life changing event. I am happy to say, however, that since that time I have learned a great deal more about the differentiation between having and experiencing “Sympathy” and “Empathy”. Having this clear understanding does greatly affect our ability to be more sympathetic with others.
The literal definition of Empathy is: “Understanding what others are feeling because you have experienced it yourself or you can put yourself in their shoes.” When you cannot put yourself in the shoes of someone else then you will have difficulty being truly empathetic. That still does not mean that you should not show compassion but you may have a harder time getting there.
The definition of the word sympathy is: “Acknowledging another person’s emotional hardship and providing comfort and assistance.” Even without empathy you can acknowledge the difficulty someone is going through and should do what you can to provide that comfort and assistance. But can you see now why sometimes you may be lacking? You simply don’t understand what someone else is going through.
A Sympathy versus Empathy comparison shows us that we need both. We may not always understand why a person is in a distressful situation. Many times we think that perhaps it is their own fault. Even if it is, shouldn’t we consider how we would feel if something happened to put us in that same situation? It may not be their fault at all. I am sure that by now you have realized that Sympathy does not mean that you are just sorry. It is a part of it but sympathy also involves having an honest caring for another. It is shown in the giving of comfort, concern, compassion, support, and encouragement to another who is in pain, distress or going through some negative experience. This is much easier when you can also have empathy.
I know of many people who chose to open their hearts to be able to show this kind of sympathy, and guess what happened to them? They turned out to be such wonderful and caring human beings after my own heart. Now, what was their secret? Well, I just told you… They opened their hearts to touch someone else!
Your thoughts are welcome