Empathy vs Sympathy
It is very common that we confuse Empathy with “sympathy.” However, between the two there is an important difference, although subtle. We can also relate empathy with “compassion” but, in the same way, there is a discrepancy between them. One of the definitions of “sympathy” is the link we feel to recognize a difficult situation that someone else is going through and we try to provide comfort and safety.
“Compassion” on the other hand, causes us to experience pain for the person who is in that situation, taking action to support, instead of turning away. The Empathy , however, causes us to experience the feelings of those who are facing this situation, as if we were ourselves.
What does Empathy Mean?
Anyone who has the ability to understand the feelings of another person is empathetic, and who sees things from their point of view.
In other words, it is putting yourself in someone else’s shoes.
But being empathetic does not provide us with a magic wand to understand the other one hundred percent. Although we have an idea of what the other person is going through at a given time, all human beings react differently, in similar circumstances and experiences.
That said, we could rather identify empathy as the ” attempt” to better understand the feelings and views of others.
Why is Empathy Important?
In fact, this ability will help us build better relationships, whether work, family or love. Human beings are social creatures, so being empathetic will benefit us greatly.
We live in a time when each of us needs more than ever to develop that characteristic. We require more people who are able to understand the situations of others and who are also willing to try to improve them.
If we all practiced empathy, there would be less war, less discrimination and much less poverty in the world.
Science Behind Empathy:
On repeated occasions, scientific trials have shown that empathy is not an exclusive feature of the human being. Some studies have shown that monkeys, dogs and even rats also maintain empathic behavior.
Although this emotional ability or trait has a hereditary factor, it has been proven that empathy can increase and decrease over time, depending on our behavior and decisions.
Neuro-scientific experiments indicate that there is something called “mirror neurons,” which, through the imitation of your body language, can be activated to help us copy other people’s emotional signals.
Types of Empathy
Psychologists Daniel Goleman and Paul Ekman , argue that empathy can be divided into three different categories:
Emotional or Affective Empathy
It is the one that gives us the ability to feel what someone else feels, and thus share the emotional burden of their situation or experience. This kind of empathy could remind you of past situations, in which you probably lived something similar.
Compassive Empathy or Empathic Concern
This type of empathy not only puts us emotionally in the place of the other person, but also makes us feel their pain or concern so deeply that it drives us to take action on what is happening.
The Cognitive Empathy
This empathy does not focus on feelings, but on understanding. Cognitive empathy gives us the ability to understand the situation and the way that state can make the other person feel. However, it does not grieve us personally.
Can You be Too Empathic?
As we said at the beginning, we should not confuse sympathy, the feeling of compassion or sorrow, with empathy.
If what we feel is sympathy, the concern is superficial and brief. On the contrary, showing empathy, makes us really get emotionally involved and it is very likely that we also give our time and effort to the cause.
A “very empathetic” person must learn to take care of both his feelings and his mood. Therefore it is necessary that empathic people stay away from toxic people .
Toxic people tend to be manipulative and play the role of victim, so empathic people (who are always predisposed to provide help) are usually an easy prey for them.
Another example would be the case that a very empathetic person decided to practice psychology. Although having empathy probably helps you put yourself in the place of your patients and provide them with better advice or treatment, you may end up taking the problems of all your patients home, thus affecting their mood.
Being too empathetic can also interfere with the decision making process. Sometimes it is necessary to be more rational than emotional when deciding or doing things. This is why the correct handling of emotions (empathy included) is so important.
Why Some People Don’t Feel Empathy?
The way we feel about others and how we treat them says a lot about us and our values.
As we said, our parents inherit the genes that create our initial personality. But then, our environment and type of parenting continue to form and this influences, of course, whether we develop empathy or not.
Most people who do not feel or feel very little (except for those with psychological disorders such as autism, or personality disorders such as narcissism), are those whose upbringing and beliefs have led them to think differently.
Many people think that whoever is in a bad economic situation is “because they have looked for it”, since surely “they did not try hard enough”. Others believe that beggars asking for money in the streets are because of it because of, for example, drugs. And they are not interested in knowing the stories behind.
However, if these same people were in a similar state, they would undoubtedly point to someone or someone else guilty of their situation, never themselves.
There are also people who think that anyone who comes from a culture other than theirs does not have the same feelings, due to the customs of where they come from. And without stopping to think about what the people involved really feel, they make comments such as “don’t worry that they are used to it” or “where they come from, that’s normal.”
On the other hand, we meet people who, because of their personal experiences, believe that “we all get what we deserve.” This may be true in some cases, but it is definitely not the reality for everyone, since the culture and social norms of the place where they live have a great influence.
Incredibly at this time we call “modern”, if a girl is sexually abused, in many places society tends to blame her for the incident, when she is obviously the victim. Then you can hear comments such as: “That happened because of how she dresses” or “Surely she caused the situation”, etc.
And those who react like this think that they will never find themselves in a similar situation, which makes it much more difficult for them to feel any empathy.
Tips to Practice Empathy
These recommendations will serve as a guide to show empathy (in a non-invasive way), in front of a person who is in a delicate situation.
- Keep in mind at all times who you are dealing with and what you know about that person (his past, characteristics, etc.). You should also keep in mind that their mood will influence their emotional response, or that there may be something you don’t know about their current situation.
- Do not assume that you understood everything, or do not intend to fully understand what is happening.
- It is customary to ask, it does not matter that it is someone you know very well or that you have even been present when the problem was triggered. Remember that we should not assume, so the best option is always to ask him what he is feeling at that moment.
- If the person decides to trust you with problem, do not interrupt it and listen carefully to what they have to say. He also pays close attention to his body language (remember that 80% of communication occurs through gestures).
- Never judge and much less compare your experience with a similar one that you have lived, since we do not all react in the same way or give equal importance to things. You better try to understand why they feel that way and look for ways to establish an emotional relationship.
- Once you find a way to interact emotionally with that person and understand, take an additional step and ask how you can help solve, or at least improve things a bit.
- If the emotional state in which the person is, is very strong, and does not allow him to think about possible solutions, perhaps you could make suggestions, but without feeling the obligation to do what you suggest. Better present your ideas as options and try to mention the advantages and disadvantages of each one.
After showing empathy in front of someone, it would be good if you took some time to reflect on what happened and how you handled it. Seeing things with a cool head can help us identify opportunities to improve our skills.It is not always easy to empathize with others, but it is something we can (and should) work on, if what we want to achieve is a better future for our society.
We have all gone through a difficult situation at some point, and we probably had someone who helped us overcome it. So why not do the same for someone else?