Sympathy vs Empathy
When I was in Nursing School, there was an ongoing debate between the concepts of Empathy and Sympathy. My youthful understanding and subsequent belief was a that sympathy equates to compassion. As a hospice nurse, compassion is at the tippy top of the patient care plan.
Many people argued (and at the time, I agreed) that empathy is the ability to feel what another person feels. I never thought that it was possible (to actually feel exactly what someone else feels). And I still don’t. Well, the truth of the matter is that I was operating under false assumptions (you know what assuming does!).
My older and wiser self has changed my tune and perspective. This perspective transformation happened when I watched Brené Brown‘s short video (below) describing the difference between the two. She says that empathy is “feeling with people.” I like the sound of that. And I get it. Completely.
Brené Brown goes on to describe difference between sympathy and empathy beautifully:
Empathy fuels connection. Sympathy drives disconnection.
According to Brené, empathy is saying, “I know what it’s like down here and you’re not alone.”
Well, I know firsthand (and from you, dear readers) that the people who have been in the bottomless pit of chemo despair or stuck on Isolation Island most certainly have empathy for those who follow them to either destination. After all, many of us certainly know what it’s like AND are motivated to assure others that they are not alone.
Sympathetic responses on the other hand begin with “At Least…” and are a futile attempt to make things better. For example,
“I was just diagnosed with breast cancer”
Sympathetic response: “At least you will have perky breasts after your mastectomy and reconstruction.” (Many people said this to me and it didn’t help!)
The most effective – and sympathetic! – responses were from people who said, “Wow. That really sucks. I’ll be here for you anytime you need me to do anything.”
Brené calls this “silver lining” something (as in a verb). While I support her comparison of empathy and sympathy (and have converted into an empathic believer!), I have to take issue with her use of Silver Lining.
When I talk about Silver Linings it is not in a Pollyanna-ish way, e.g., “If you look for the Silver Lining, everything will be fiiiiiiine.” Not. At. All. I have never (and would never!) suggest that looking for Silver Linings in any way negates the very real and very important feelings of sadness or anger or despair that can be a part of any life challenge or even tragedy. Rather, Silver Linings provide balance and perspective to help get through some of the darkest of days.
The video below is engaging and thought provoking. I’d love to hear your responses to it!