Empathy. You’ve heard the word, but do you really know what it means? Counselors are deeply familiar with this word, however, it’s a concept that’s misunderstood by so many (myself included in my pre-graduate school days). Why is this? Well, we often think that empathy is synonymous with sympathy, however there is very important distinction between the two - a distinction that can be the difference in whether or not we connect or disconnect from each other.
Renowned author Brene Brown states that “empathy fuels connection, sympathy drives disconnection”. But wait! I thought sympathy was a good thing! Let’s dig a little deeper into the semantics of these two words and you’ll see what I’m talking about. Empathy involves identifying with another’s emotional pain, placing oneself in another’s position to gain understanding, and the willingness to “just be” with another. Mirriam-Webser defines empathy as “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another”.
So, how is this different from sympathy? Sympathy is feeling sorry for another without attempting to understand or identify with another’s pain. It can also look like trying to "lighten the mood" or "find the silver lining", which comes across as dismissing another’s pain rather than listening and acknowledging it.
Theresa Wiseman, a nursing scholar, proposed four attributes of empathy that can give us more clarity as to what empathy looks and sounds like:
Am I saying that we should never give feedback or speak truth to our loved ones? By no means. However, the moment when your friend is sharing their raw emotions and struggles with you is often not the best time for giving advice. Rather, these are the moments that they just need to feel heard, connected, and acknowledged.
There are many hurting people in our world, and now more than ever do we need to grow in empathy. Notice I said grow in empathy. Although empathy may come more naturally to some, empathy is a skill that can be practiced and developed. What does this look like? Brene Brown suggests:
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