Empathy versus Sympathy

ishitaaggarwal
@ishitaaggarwal
31 Jul 2020

In a world that has been engulfed by a barrage of problems, empathy is the simplest solution yet it’s seldom practiced. With the advent of technology and the constant inflow of information, we’ve been normalized to other people’s sufferings, which in turn, has reduced our ability to truly empathize.

For instance, Coronavirus has inflicted insurmountable problems for everyone, especially the poor and underprivileged. We’ve been reading news on the migrant crisis, the number of active cases, and the unemployment catastrophe that has left millions with a meager income. Ultimately, we’ve become numb to everything that’s going on and are facing an empathy deficit.


What is the difference between Empathy and Sympathy?

Although the two words share the same etymological Greek root, pathos which means feelings and suffering, they aren’t the same. Translated from the German word, Einfühlung, empathy means the ability to step into someone else’s shoes and share their emotions and thoughts. It refers to the action of understanding and being sensitive to another person’s experiences and feelings.

There are three main kinds of empathy: affective, somatic, and cognitive empathy:

  • Affective empathy means the ability to share others’ emotions. A person with this sort of empathy usually has a visceral reaction to violence and macabre in horror shows.

  • On the other hand, cognitive empathy refers to the ability to understand someone’s emotions. A person who rationally understands another’s feelings without being emotionally swayed displays this kind of empathy.

  • Lastly, somatic empathy is described as responding to someone else’s pain by physically experiencing the same pain.
    On the other hand, sympathy refers to feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else’s misfortunes.

Sympathy is a more detached concept than empathy because it essentially involves acknowledging someone’s sadness and offering your pity or condolences.


How does Practicing Empathy Impact Our Own Well-being?

Although being sensitive to other people is often discussed, it’s seldom practiced for our own selves. How many times have you beaten yourself up over a missed deadline or a bad day and been overly judgemental? Chances are, quite often. In fact, studies prove that feeling guilty or being too harsh on yourself for a bad day can negatively impact your well-being in the long run. So, what’s the way out? Empathy goes a long way.

If you look at your shortcomings and address it as you would for a friend, how different will the dialogue be? Being slightly more patient and understanding with your own self can help you improve self-esteem, confidence, and happiness.

The idea isn’t to justify your mistakes by blaming it on external factors. Instead, it is to acknowledge what you did wrong, understand what factors led to it, forgive yourself, and keep the lessons in mind.

This is how empathy is starkly different from sympathy. Sympathy may tell you to feel sorry for yourself for messing up something and complain why all this only happens to you. Not only is this unhelpful, but it also makes you feel helpless and out of control, thereby robbing you of your confidence and happiness.


How does Empathy Impact our Relationships?

Empathy and sympathy impact people in different ways. Research suggests that practicing empathy is incredibly important for a person’s mental health as it helps in connecting with others and fostering relationships. Moreover, being empathetic helps you get rid of some toxic emotions against people who have done you wrong and helps you in forgiving and moving on. Therefore, forgiveness can improve your overall mental and physical health.

Imagine that you and your friend had a disagreement and words were exchanged. Although you’re upset and being empathetic may be the last item on your list, it will actually help in understanding why your friend snapped and how you both can resolve this. Unequivocally, being empathetic is a skill that can help you nurture healthy relationships and improve your personal well-being.

Sympathy, on the other hand, can be detrimental to your relationships. Since it mainly involves feeling sorry for the other person without offering any real help, it may come across as shallow and tokenistic. In some cases, it may actually make the other person feel worse.


How does Empathy Impact Students?

School and University life come with their share of fun and worries. The mental health crisis among students is extremely serious with rising suicide rates. The pressure to perform well and achieve sky-high marks for increasingly competitive admissions can make many students feel overwhelmed, depressed, and anxious. The education system needs to be changed in such a way that students feel understood and supported.

Having empathic teachers and mentors can be extremely crucial here. A supportive teacher who understands a student’s distress and offers assistance in terms of tutoring, guidance, and patience can change a person’s life. Instead of being obsessed with marks and results, a little more empathy and support might do the trick.

Moreover, within students, empathy should be a value that’s actively taught. Junior students tend towards being insensitive to their peers and might bully some. Bullying can have long-lasting impacts on a child’s well being. Only if children are taught to be more sensitive and understanding, high school may not be that dreaded a place.

On the other hand, if a teacher or peer expresses sympathy over a student’s plight, it may be helpful initially but in the long run, that student will not derive any tangible benefit or lesson. Sympathy is a suitable response for misfortune in the short run but real recovery can take place once empathy is introduced.


Empathy's Role in the Workplace

The world will be a kinder place if society, as a whole, embraces, and actively practices empathy. Not only does it improve relationships and mental health, practicing empathy has proven to increase productivity too. That’s right, you can increase your business’ performance and your employees’ productivity by simply being empathetic.

This may sound rather counterintuitive given that the workplace is a highly competitive and stressful environment. However, a Forbes article highlights that in order to foster creativity and innovation, leaders need to ensure that they understand their colleagues and their thought-process.

Not only that, but empathy also promotes collaborative action for any project. If you’re uneasy about a business model and your colleagues empathize with you by trying to discuss the issue, chances are that the success rate for that project will be higher since everyone had an honest discussion. Moreover, practicing empathy with your customers is the easiest way to ensure customer loyalty. Inevitably, empathy positively impacts all aspects of the workplace. It may also win the company some loyal employees.

On the other hand, sympathy creates fleeting moments of support. It may promote altruistic behavior in some but on a day to day basis, sympathy doesn’t offer the same kind of support and understanding that empathy does.


Empathy's Importance at Home

Your home is meant to be a safe-space. A place where you feel comfortable sharing your thoughts and feelings without fear of judgment. Although this is an ideal world scenario, something close to that can be achieved if all family members adopted the practice of empathy. Instead of engaging in petty quarrels, engaging in a conversation about what’s making you act out will be more helpful for all parties involved. Being vulnerable might seem dreadful but the more honest and supportive the conversation, the better the relationships.

On the other hand, sympathy might brood some feelings of resentment or anger towards the other family members if you consider them responsible for your situation. In this case, instead of receiving pity, you might wanna open up and discuss ways to get better.


In the end, it’s important to practice empathy regularly. It has the potential of brightening up someone’s day, including yours! In an otherwise cloudy sky, empathy might be someone’s ray of light.


Edited by Annanya Chaturvedi


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