Sympathy vs Empathy

How to best support someone struggling with mental illness


It can be difficult to know what to say to someone who is experiencing deep and painful emotions. In this article we will explore the differences between offering sympathy and empathy in these times.

The dictionary definition of sympathy is:

Sympathy- Feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else’s misfortune.

When feeling sympathy for someone you are taking the psychological position of “I am ok, you are not ok”. By taking this position, out of love you will feel the need to a) Make this situation better or B) Fix the problem. To make the situation better you might try to paint a silver lining around the issue that your loved one is facing. This manifests itself as ‘at least’ statements.

“I lost my baby”  “At least you know you can conceive another baby”

“My daughter is failing school” “At least your son is an A* student”

To fix the problem you might also feel the need to offer your loved ones advice. When you talk for others and tell them what they “should do” you are actually being unhelpful to your loved one because you are disempowering them to find their own solution. An example of this is telling someone to “cheer up” when they are crying. It is meant from a good place but is unhelpful to the person who is on the receiving end of it. If your desperate to work on finding solutions I would instead ask your loved one what they feel they need to do in order to move forward.

The dictionary definition of empathy is:

Empathy- The ability to understand and share the feelings of another

When you are speaking to someone from a place of empathy you are in the psychological position of “I am ok, you are ok”. In this position you will be able to share times in your past when you have felt similar to where they do now. Empathy does not try to fix situations or make it better. Empathy is all about identifying with a situation, sitting alongside your loved one and experiencing that emotion together. By sitting in emotions with people you will use more “I can relate” statements.

“I lost my baby”  “I can’t imagine what it must feel like to lose a child. When my husband passed away I was inconsolable and shut myself away for months”

“My daughter is failing school”  ” I remember when my son got expelled from school and similarly to you, I didn’t know which way to turn” 

As you can see in the examples above empathy helps you feel alongside your loved ones. It enables you to offer support and encourages connection. Empathy regards your loved ones feelings and gives them the strength to find their own solutions out of their situation. This provides a much healthier outcome for your loved one. To get a better understanding let’s take a look at an analogy below.

Imagine you are walking on a blanket of freshly fallen snow. If you decided that morning to wear stilettos, all of your body weight would have be focussed on one point of the shoe. The pressure would be so great on the heel section that you would sink deep into the snow and struggle to move forward. If however, you decided to wear snow shoes, then your body weight would have been spread over a wide surface area. This would create less pressure and allow you to walk on top of the snow without sinking. Empathy is just like the snow shoe in the above analogy . By experiencing an emotion with a loved one you are sharing the weight of it. Not only does that lessen the pressure but it supports them to continue walking forward, finding solutions rather than sinking.

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