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Sympathy over empathy

We used to have an obligation to at least try to be sympathetic. Now that’s ratcheted up to having to be empathetic. We should lower the bar.

Sympathy means feeling bad for someone while empathy means actually feeling the same feelings.

If that’s what those words still mean, empathy is more than we usually need and is less than we can often accomplish.

You’re hungry? I can be sympathetic about your hunger, but I can’t feel your hunger.

There are child soldiers? I can perhaps understand some of the situation that lets such a thing happen, and I can be shocked and sad that it does, but I don’t think I can feel what those children feel.

You have been sexually assaulted? I can be deeply sympathetic and supportive, but I don’t think I can actually feel what you felt or even what you are feeling now. For example, if you are now overwhelmingly anxious about being in some ordinary situations — walking to your car, entering an unlit room — you will have all my sympathy and support, but I will not experience the trembling you feel in your knees or the tension expressed by your shallow breaths.

Empathy is hard. It often takes the magic of an artist to get us to feel what a character is feeling. (Q: If I am feeling what a non-existent character is feeling, is that even empathy?)

Empathy is hard. Empathy is rare. Empathy is often exactly what is not required: If you are afraid, you probably don’t need another frightened person. You need someone sympathetic who can help you deal with your fears.

Sympathy is getting a bad rap, as if it means just patting someone on the shoulder and saying “There there.” That’s not what sympathy ever was. Sympathy means you are affected by another person’s feelings, not that you feel those very feelings. If I am sad and worried that you are so depressed, I am affected by your feelings, but I am not myself depressed.

Empathy can be a pure mirror of someone else’s feelings. But sympathy requires more than just feeling. If I see you crying, to be sympathetic I have to know something about you and especially about what has caused you to cry. Are you crying because you’ve been hurt? Because you broke up with someone you loved? Because you just saw a sad movie? Because you didn’t get into a school or onto a particular team? Because you’re sympathizing with someone else? In order to sympathize more fully, I need to know.

That is, in sympathy you turn not just to feelings but to the world. You see what the sufferer sees from her/his point of view, or as close to that point of view as you can. What you see is not a matter of indifference to you. You are moved by what is moving the other. How you are moved is different in type and extent — you are not fearful in the face of the other’s fears, you are not as wracked by grief as is the mourner — but you are moved.

Sympathy lets the world matter to you as it matters to someone else. In sympathy, the mattering culminates from heart, mind, and caring about the other. It is perhaps the best thing we do.

Most importantly, through sympathy are we moved to helpful action, whether that is indeed a pat on the shoulder or requires a far larger commitment. Sympathy does that to us. For us.

Empathy can get in the way of the supportive action that sympathy demands. If a friend is heartbroken because a relationship ended, you may bring to bear a different view of the world and hold out other feelings as possibilities. Hope perhaps. A different perspective. A pint of Ben and Jerry’s. The gap in feelings between you and your friend enables the sympathetic action your friend needs.

If our aim is to act in the world to try to reduce pain, fear, and sadness, then asking for empathy is often to ask for too much. Sympathy more than suffices.

7 Responses to “Sympathy over empathy”

  1. For a few years now, I study and practice Buddhism. One of its strongest values and practices is Compassion. Compassion not in the Jewish or Christian sense but in another sense.

    Compassion has some of Empathy and some of Symapthy but it is also wider and deeper.

    The very basic idea of Compassion is that all people suffer and all people want to be happy and loved. The motivation of all of us is to do good. What I see as good is different than what you see as good.

    The basic understanding that doing good is common to us is the root of understanding and practicing Compassion.

    When you drive and use the turn signals, you practice Compassion because you know that others around you would want to know that you are about to make a turn.

    This is just a small example.

    I suggest watching videos where the Dalai Lama talks about Compassion. He is very good at it.

  2. I empathize with your inability to empathize with child soldiers. I also think it is possible to empathize with fictional characters. I felt the gnawing pain the Joads of Grapes of Wrath appeared to feel knowing full well that the Joads were figments of a creative imagination. It is a maze of twisty little passages, this brain thing.

  3. […] This not a Bible lesson — I am neither qualified nor interested in that kind of vibe. That said, recently David Weinberger published a nice blog post that speaks volumes in terms of experience — he says: if we can choose between practicing sympathy or practicing empathy, he prefers “sympathy over empathy“. […]

  4. Thank you for this. I work in the field of user experience design, where many prominent practitioners talk about the need to empathize with customers or “end users” or anyone for whom one is designing something. I have always understood this type of empathy as contextual, not absolute. To design Crisis Text Line, for example, Nancy Lublin and team do not need to feel exactly what every teen contemplating suicide is feeling, but they do need to spend enough time with these teens to have an instinctual sense of what they seek and how they respond in the context of seeking help via Crisis Text Line. Contextual empathy becomes a practical precondition for giving this type of help. On the other hand, when one is creating policy or systems of governance, i.e. balancing needs, I agree that sympathy is a more constructive orientation. The trick, for me, is determining the correct mode of engagement in cases where product and policy converge.

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