What is empathy and why is it very different than sympathy?
We often think of the ability to show sympathy as a positive trait; however, according to Dr. Brené Brown, “Empathy fuels connection; sympathy drives disconnection.”
While some individuals may have a natural inclination towards empathy, it is something that may be a new concept to many people. When someone in your life experiences a loss, you want to be supportive, but may not always understand the best way to do so. Traditionally, we have been told to have sympathy, or take pity on those who have lost someone. Research has shown us that there is another way we can look at things, and a very different way we can offer support.
Brené Brown made a short video years ago that simply and clearly explains the subtle differences between sympathy and empathy, and guides individuals on how to display true empathy to those around them. You may wish to watch this video yourself, and share it with others who you know are also supporting the grieving family. Once we can understand the basic tenets of empathy, we can show up more openly and fully for those we love.
Empathy vs. Sympathy
Empathy and sympathy are closely related words, and while they do share similar origins and usage, they are not synonyms. Curious to understand the subtle differences?
Empathy: Empathy is defined by Merriam-Webster as “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another.”
Sympathy: Sympathy is defined by Merriam-Webster as “the feeling that you care about and are sorry for someone else’s trouble, grief, misfortune, etc: a sympathetic feeling.”
The Four Attributes Of Empathy
Theresa Wiseman, a nursing scholar, points out four key attributes of empathy:
1. Perspective Taking
The ability to take the view of another person and understand that their perspective is their reality. We’ve all heard the adage that we cannot know someone until we walk a mile in their shoes. While you may not be experiencing the same grief as someone else, you can no doubt imagine what it would feel like to be in their situation. Be as compassionate with the family as you would hope others would be with you should you experience a loss.
2. Staying out of Judgment
Humans are naturally judgmental, but when we judge others, we make assumptions without knowing a person’s backstory. Perhaps you feel the person who died somehow contributed to their own passing, or that the surviving family is not reacting in the way you think they should react. Remember that grief is very personal, and that everyone experiences things in a unique way. Rather than judging anyone on their actions or emotions, do your best to offer support in whatever way you feel comfortable. Resist the urge to offer advice, unless it is specifically requested by a family member.
3. Recognizing Emotions in Other People
Rather than reacting to other people’s emotions by becoming defensive or negating them, identify, validate, and clarify their feelings. If you are unsure how someone is feeling, it is ok to ask. You could simply say “I’m hearing some anger in your words, am I getting that right?” This gives the other person a chance to either let you know that’s what they are feeling, correct you, or let you know they don’t want to discuss their feelings at this time. If they do share with you how they are feeling, a simple phrase, such as “I can imagine that’s a difficult way to feel” can let the person know that you understand and accept how they are processing things.
To show empathy, it’s important that we choose our words carefully, so as to offer support instead of advice or judgement. Rather than say “It’s been weeks already, why are you still so sad?” you may wish to say something like “It seems that you’re still feeling very sad. Would you like to talk about it?” Offering to bear witness to another person’s grief is often one of the most generous gifts we can give of ourselves.
Sympathy is “I see you, and I feel bad for you.”
Empathy is “I see you, and I feel this with you.”
Empathy requires that we make ourselves vulnerable to another person’s pain and that takes courage. To connect with someone’s suffering, we must pull that emotion from deep within ourselves, and feel it fully. It seems counterintuitive because most of us do not want to feel our own pain, let alone connect with it on purpose.
Difficult conversations are not easy or comfortable. It seems easier and more helpful to try to alleviate a person’s suffering by pointing out that their glass is half full. However, people who are in emotional pain are not looking for an answer; they are looking for connection.
Dr. Brown explains that starting any sentence with, “At least…” is a faux pax. For example:
“I lost my job.”
Instead of: “At least you got severance pay.”
Try: “That sounds stressful. Would you like to talk about it?”
“My boyfriend broke up with me.”
Instead of: “At least you didn’t waste any more time with him.”
Try: “Is that upsetting or are you feeling relieved?”
“My grandmother passed.”
Instead of: “At least she lived a long life.”
Try: “That’s so sad. I’d love to hear more about her if you’d like to share.”
When a friend or family member comes to you with their grief, they are rarely looking for a solution, as they likely know there is no quick fix. Instead, they are likely looking to you for compassion, for a non-judgemental presence, and for a calm assurance that their feelings are valid. When you offer empathy to someone who is grieving, you are offering hope that they will be able to navigate this, no matter how long it may take.
You are reminding them that although losing someone is hard, they have the support and strength they need to make their way through.
Looking for other ways to comfort a friend during a difficult time? Read more thoughtful suggestions about ways you can support them.