01 February, 2012

Empathy versus sympathy

A dear friend recently asked me what was the difference between empathy and sympathy. I was at work at the time and desperate to make the explanation as brief as possible, I walked to the kitchenette, where a toaster was working. I put my hand near the toaster.

'I can feel the heat. This is what empathy is about.'

I then touched the toaster and pulled back a second later as the pain registered on my finger.

'This is hot - don't touch! This is what sympathy is about.'

Sympathy is engaging with another's emotional field, and pulling away or getting involved in the embroglio of their dramas. We become affected by what they are feeling and take on their pain to the extent that we too become affected. Empathy is recognising another's feeling but remaining separate enough as to be able to effectively deal with their issues in a compassionate and effective way without becoming a victim of their emotions. It is a tightrope to walk, between empathy and sympathy, but for fear of getting burns every time someone has some personal drama, it is better to keep one's distance.
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Sympathy says...
Joe: I just got fired today
Jill: Wow, that sucks. You'll be okay. I got fired a few years ago and...
Joe: But you're not listening!

Empathy says...
Joe: I just got fired today
Jill; Wow, that sucks. You must feel awful.
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Recognise their pain, but don't deflect or defuse the situation or get embroiled in the flames of their emotions. And finally, never give advice unless you are asked. It usually only appears after they have finally vented their emotions, and only rarely then.

Sooner or later people have to learn for themselves not to touch toasters when they are working, but in slower learners you have to point to the toaster as the cause.

Fortunately my friend was kind enough to offer a running tap for my burnt finger.