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Sympathy Vs. Empathy

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This is making me crazy. What on earth is the difference between sympathy and empathy? And don't tell me to go look at a dictionary, the ones I've looked at were no help. They just said that both words were synonomous with "pity."

Yeesh. Any assistance would be appreciated.

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Okay, I think I may be able to help. My English teacher was talking about this a while ago. She said that one of the problems was people were not "emphathetic" any more. I took that to mean sympathetic and argued with her. It came down to this. Empathy is being able to relate to the person. You don't have to care about them or pity them, you just have to know why they did what they did. For instance, if someone gets offered drugs and takes them, you can emphasize with the being offered. That doesn't mean you pity them for taking the drugs.

Maybe that helps.


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Of the definitions I see on web, the following are closest to the way I think of the terms:

Empathy : "The ability to put one's self into the psychological frame of reference or point of view of another..."

Sympathy: "sharing the feelings of others (especially feelings of sorrow or anguish)"

Usually, I sympathize with someone because I empathize with them and because I consider their feelings to flow from legitimate causes. An example would be when I sympathize with the sorrow of a friend who has experienced the death of a someone close to them.

When I feel empathy without sympathy it is in a situation where I understand how a person felt before they took some action, but I think that they should not have taken the action. These are usually situations where I find myself thinking something along the lines: "I once felt a temptation to do XYZ, but I realized it was wrong, and I didn't act on that temptation."

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Mmm, a friend once told me that sympathy is an insult to you and them, and I think he was right. Regardless of your ability to mentally project emotions, consequences, etc, you can never REALLY get inside someone's head and "feel" their emotions, you DON'T know what they're going through.

Hence the idiocy of the Clinton's "I feel your pain." No. You don't.

I've always been called insensitive because I leave people alone when they're grieving . . . what am I supposed to do? I've always thought that grief is an essentially private thing. I might make considerations based on empathy (let's not hassle her about that paperwork today), but I would limit myself from intrusive sympathy.

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Two incidents that happened today.

1) In the morning, my son was all set to watch a particular program on TV. At his age, this is an important value to him. We checked the TV program on the online TV Guide and the web, to be sure about the time. Then, for some reason, the program did not air. (I guess the reported schedules/guides were just wrong.)

My son was in tears. He has about 60 other episodes of this series on various DVDs and cassettes. Yet, the schedule showed this was a new episode, and he was really looking forward to it.

I empathize with his feeling of disappointment. No, I cannot get into his mind, nor can I feel his pain. Despite that, I can empathize with him because I have felt disappointments too in situations where I had done everything right, and then something out of my control had gone wrong.

As an adult, I have to help him understand the context and understand how "in the scheme of his life", this is a minor disappointment that he must "get over". However, I must do so without belittling the value, nor the strength of his value for it. Also, I have to help him learn how to deal with it: for instance, by finding some other "fun-thing" to do.

The problem is, that if one starts by saying something like: "It's just a single episode... it'll come again... you can do something else that's fun...", it does not work. The child -- in his own way -- realizes that you have no clue how he is feeling (i.e. your lack of empathy is evident). He does not react well and your lesson is wasted. Also, this is often the starting point for an isidious lesson: teaching a child to repress their emotions.

What works best and is also the most justly-respectful of my child's values and the automated response to a loss of such value? I have found that the most friendly and rational approach is to show that you understand why he is sad and disappointed (and I genuinely do). Acknowledging an emotion is acceptance: "it is okay to feel sad when you lose an important value". After giving this some time (and the "duration of mourning" depends on what values have been lost), you'll find that the child will rebound and probably suggest some other "fun-thing" he could be doing instead of "wasting his time" crying.

Now for the second incident:

2) I was speaking to the mother of my child's pal. She was talking about an exam she had to take. It was gruelling test for certification to be a doctor. It was split across two full days. "It's going to be really tough because one of those days is the day I fast", she said.

She explained that she had started a religious fast one day a week. (Ostensibly, her God sympathizes with the pain such a fast implies and ends up bestowing some value on her: like a better job, a better grade, or whatever.) I know religious people who would have reacted with a sentiment like: "Oh! you poor thing, how unfortunate that your exam is on the day of your fast."

However, I neither empathized nor sympathized. (I simply bit my tongue, fighting back the urge to say "Serves you right" :P )

Summary: Empathy is when you understand "where a person is coming from", because you have "been there , done that". Sympathy is when you think the place "they're coming from" is a legitimate one. I think a just person can feel sympathy.

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Empathy is the ability to feel a sensation or emotion expressed by another person as if it were your own (whilst still being aware that it is not your own). To use an example, empathy is what causes you to wince when you observe someone doing something painful like breaking their finger in a door. I don't think empathy is actually an emotion, but a capacity. You don't have to pause and reflect on what breaking your finger feels like, even if you've never done it before. And the feeling is felt, not in your mind, but in your finger (or wherever the observed emotion/sensation occurs). (Incidently, something called "mirror neurons" are considered to be responsible for empathy; you might want to look it up).

Sympathy is an emotion that might possibly occur after you have felt empathy (and in many other situations); it is a desire to support and/or comfort someone (hence: showing sympathy). But there is no necessity that you will sympathise after experiencing empathy. For instance, you might empathise with someone's passionate rage (i.e. recognise their feelings for what they are) and then feel a totally different emotion like disgust, or amusement, rather than sympathy.

To put it a different way: empathy gives you immediate information (e.g. his finger is hurting badly) and sympathy results from a subsequent evaluation of that info (I want to comfort him). If you see an enemy hurt his finger in the same fashion, you'll still feel his pain, initially, but then you might be delighted about it. That is where the difference lies.

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Oh, okay.  So, if you empathize with someone, you can relate to their situation.  If you sympathize with them, you are (in effect) granting them an emotional blank check?

No. I could symphathise with someone who had been raped as a child, but I couldnt empathise with them since I would have no idea what being in that situation was like. Another person who had been raped might describe their feelings towards them as being 'empathy' though.

Edited by Hal
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