Dec 13, 2013

empathy vs. sympathy

I have been trying, literally for twenty years, to sort out how people understand and commonly use the words empathy and sympathy.  I started thinking about the two and how they might be related to solidarity for my Swarthmore college thesis.   Since then when they come up in conversation I have regularly asked people what they understand the words to mean, and what they see the difference as. I have become convinced that people use them in widely different ways - so if you hear people use them don't assume you know what they mean by these terms! Here are Brene Brown's definitions, beautifully animated by the RSA.


Leah said...

I like the subject of this video and am a fan of Bren√© Brown’s work but there’s one piece here that disturbs me.

Brown says that an empathetic response to someone in a ‘deep hole’ can include saying “Hey. I know what it’s like down here. And you’re not alone.” In my experience, this response is not empathetic. If my friend is struggling with a difficult boss at work it’s not helpful for me to say “You’re not alone. I know exactly how you feel. When I was worked at this restaurant down the street I had a boss who was exactly the same.” This type of response doesn’t feed connection because (1) I’m appropriating my friend’s experience by painting it as the same as mine which it isn’t; and (2) I’m making the conversation about me and not about my friend.

In my experience, a more empathetic response to someone in a ‘deep hole’ is to climb down and say “Hey. I understand why you’re down here. And I’m here for you.” To my friend struggling with his/her boss I would say “Hey. I understand that having a boss who undermines you all the time is tough. If there’s any way that I can support you during this time, I’m here for you.” This response validates rather than appropriates my friend’s person’s feelings and keeps the focus on her/him instead of me.

Empathy is a way of responding to someone in a ‘deep hole’ in a way that’s loving and connecting. It includes reflecting people’s emotions back to them and connecting to the way they feel, but if you want to be supportive, it’s important to remember that it’s not about you.

Thanks for reading,


Sara Koopman said...

AMEN sister! hallelujah! I couldn't agree more, and you'll see in previous posts that I regularly point the dangers of empathy being appropriative - and how that can then leads to some less than fabulous solidarity dynamics. But I super appreciate the way you lay it out here and the examples you give - thanks so much for engaging!

in solidarity,