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 The difference between empathy and sympathy
Submitted By DavidvdW | Added on: 2017 June 05 | Total Visits: 536 | Printable version

The difference between empathy and sympathy

Mari I Beukes
Mari Beukes gives a detailed exposition of the differences between empathy and sympathy and their different effects in human relationships.

The psychotherapist Carl Rogers brought the knowledge and value of the person-centred approach to the field of psychology and psychotherapy in the mid 20th century. He received a Nobel prize nomination for this theory. It is clear to me how his theory elicited this kind of acknowledgement. He showed how the relational qualities of genuineness, unconditional acceptance and accurate empathy on the receiving end make for a safe and growth promoting relationship conducive for well-being. These notions, if accurately applied by every individual in relation to another on a continuous basis, certainly can move people toward experiencing more interpersonal well-being in the midst of so many different perspectives, holding within it the potential to promote a more peaceful and safe environment for all in this shared environment called Earth.

With regards to the relational quality called empathy, I cannot help but note a growing tendency to use empathy and sympathy as synonyms, when in fact there is a difference. Both interpersonal qualities entail an intention of care but how it comes across to the one on the receiving end can have quite different effects. True empathy has a genuine ‘other-focussed’ quality, whilst the ‘self’ still remains preserved. Sympathy though, albeit, often unintentionally has a ‘self-focussed’ quality. Empathy indicates a circular quality and sympathy a linear quality. Empathy keeps the responsibility with the the one receiving the empathy, but sympathy entails a shifting of responsibility to the one offering the sympathy, which in turn affect the definition of the relationship between the parties.

Empathy is the relational ability that sees you visit another person’s place for a moment through genuinely hearing their needs, feelings and viewpoints as they experience/d it. The one relating with empathy then responds in a manner that leaves the person with the feeling that they are heard for their side (needs, feelings and viewpoints) as they experience it from their perspective, and not from the other’s perspective. So often we think we know how someone feels and what they need because we see or interpret their side from our own perspectives. Doing this then says more about ourselves and moves toward sympathy instead of empathy. To achieve accurate empathy, you actually need to leave your side for a moment in order to give the other person the satisfaction that their side (needs, feelings and viewpoints) is fully visible to you and that you ‘get’ what they are experiencing. Important to note is that to give empathy does not mean you have to agree with another’s viewpoint and or experience/s, or that you and the other person have to have the same needs and feelings. It merely means that you hear another accurately for their subjective experience/s, without colouring their experience with your own perspective.

Empathy is therefore the skill to step outside of your position, for a moment, and truly hear the side of another’s, after which you resume your position, your needs, feelings and viewpoints. Should you find that your side’s picture differs from that of the others’ you can merely bring your side in a manner that states where you stand from your side. You can then bring your needs, feelings and viewpoints firstly in a subjective manner, which is a non-threatening manner to bring your side and makes it easier for someone to hear you, and secondly to merely acknowledge that you see things differently. This way, two (or more) sides can be fully on the table even if they differ from each other. Negotiation over needs becomes more possible. Through mutual empathy we can effectively work with our diversity. People with empathy typically have an intention to really hear and understand another’s experience/s and work something out. This manner is conducive toward teambuilding. This works most optimally when both parties of course are committed to relate with accurate empathy, which in legal terms boil down to good faith. This skill is particularly useful when more than one viewpoints and related needs are at stake. Room for negotiation over needs and change is then possible between both parties. This way both parties can give in a little from both sides to find a working solution if that is what their relationship needs and hence forth what they agree to do for the sake of the survival of their relationship. It therefore goes without saying that any partnership and particularly in the context of a marriage accurate empathy is quite vital.

Sympathy, for me, works a little different. The sympathiser typically looks onto the receiver through their own perspective, not really checking that he or she fully grasps the subjective experience/s of the other. This naturally leaves an element of assumption on the part of the sympathiser. On the receiving end sympathetic impressions about what someone might feel, or need or should do can be quite jarring as it might not fit with how they really feel. Since sympathy is often coloured with the perspective of the sympathiser’s, a sense of obligation to please the sympathiser might be felt on the receiving end as opposed to the desired need to feel understood and supported.

Sympathy often has a secondary part to it in that the giver of the sympathy can proceed to offer advice, solutions or instructions. To tell someone how you think they must feel and what they should do of course is often very well intended, but with a potentially different effect on the receiver.

The risk to assume and instruct imbedded in the action of sympathy can bring a controlling and/or judgemental colour to a relationship or interaction, with the effect that the receiver of the sympathy can feel lesser and/or indebted to the sympathetic onlooker or giver for a certain response that fits the need of the giver more than what it fits the need of the receiver. As this is often not the intention of the communicator of sympathy, it can leave him or her with confusion when the receiver of sympathy responds with unexpected messages that communicate rejection or justifications, for example. When matched with strong leadership styles on the one hand and strong follower styles on the other, sympathy can facilitate and create dependency, whereas empathy can be more empowering as it keeps the experience and any decisions with the receiver of the empathy, therefore maintaining independence. When needs emerge for a relationship an interdependent rather than a dependent relationship can develop. Of course here the context is important. In some contexts, a leader - follower relationship is effective, where leaders take responsibility for the well-being of others, whilst in other contexts empowerment through empathy is more effective, or perhaps an equally defined interdependent team approach is more optimal.

On two opposing sides of the spectrum sympathy can be used as a manoeuvre to control another with. This can happen in one of two ways: Some people use sympathy to manipulate others with and this can hook another into a position of continuous guilt with a sense of obligation. When you feel this strong sense of guilt and obligation for no apparent reason, my suggestion is to remain very cautious and not to fall into that demand or appeal without checking out the situation. Many a man or woman who have played on another’s guilt and/or impacted them with a sense of obligation have also been known to have many victims of great misery. A person that moves in relation to others continuously manoeuvring for sympathy has a manipulative relational style in which they bring their needs and have their needs met by others. They often show little regard (empathy, unconditional acceptance and genuineness) for another’s side and rather bring their own side in a manner that leaves the receiver with the effect of guilt. Some receivers of the effect of guilt would thus move towards meeting the person’s needs continuously and risk feeling done in by or taken advantage of in due course. To manoeuvre for sympathy is to assume a one up position in relation to another. Such an interaction typically happens on the terms of the one manoeuvring or moving towards receiving continuous sympathy from others and hooking others in a cycle of guilt and giving.

On the other end of the spectrum there are those who need people in a needy position, so they can bestow their sympathy on them and in a way hook the receiver of sympathy with a feeling of never ending debt and gratefulness to the giver of sympathy. You can see that both of these ends of the spectrum sound quite similar, but points more to opposite sides of the same coin.

The one uses sympathy to manipulate others to meet their self-centred needs, thus their will. The other uses others’ needs to meet their own need for continuous acknowledgement of their own need to be needed and to control. Both are often executed in a quite subtle manner and leaves the one on the receiving end often feeling guilty and or indebted with a sense of entrapment and confusion.

Another scenario of sympathy is one where the giver gives up their place and perspective for others completely in a continued self-sacrificial manner. In such an interaction the person brings him or herself in a one-down manner to others, serving others on other’s terms. Such a person over time can lose their own place and ability to bring needs to others and risk feeling abused, burned out, angry and numerous other subjective feelings of discomfort.

There are however, professions and roles in life that need people who can serve others and nurture them. People assuming these roles need to create space for their own needs effectively in order to rest and replenish. Appropriate remuneration for their skills, time and services is also necessary in order to validate the people fulfilling these roles. Although people in these roles, especially those operating in contexts of severe physical deprivation, engage in sympathy, they also ideally incorporate the person-centred relational qualities of empathy, unconditional acceptance and genuineness, which renders this use of sympathy more effective in these contexts. This way such care givers can be genuine in their need to serve others and other’s needs whilst at the same time maintaining or making space for their own needs and preservation through various means when needed.


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