As a counselor and psychology professor, I do understand there is a drastic difference between empathy and sympathy. However, in a recent talk that researcher and author Brene Brown did in London, I gleaned a few new thoughts about the differences.
Brown summarized the difference like this:
Empathy: Is feeling WITH people. It fuels connection.
Sympathy: Is feeling FOR people. It drives disconnection.
Let’s pretend someone is in a deep hole. Empathy says, “I see you, that’s bad.” Then it responds in heartfelt connection or action.
Sympathy says, “That sucks.” But, no connection with the heart takes place. In Texas-speak, sympathy sounds like, “Oh bless your heart.” It leaves the person feeling worse off than if they had never shared.
Empathy is a choice because you have to decide if you’ll connect with your heart or just say something kind. Sympathy tries to make things better with a statement rather than a leaning in for connection.
Brown asked the audience how they felt when they shared something vulnerable and someone really got it; really understood and met them in that space (empathy). The answers were:
Empathy is sacred space. Empathy says, “Me too.
Lucille Zimmerman is a Licensed Professional Counselor with a private practice in Littleton, CO and an affiliate faculty teacher at Colorado Christian University.
She is also the author of Renewed: Finding Your Inner Happy in an Overwhelmed World. Through practical ideas and relatable anecdotes, readers can better understand their strengths and their passions—and address some of the underlying struggles or hurts that make them want to keep busy or minister to others to the detriment of themselves. Renewed can help nurture those areas of women’s lives to use them better for work, family, and service. It gives readers permission to examine where they spend their energy and time, and learn to set limits and listen to “that inner voice."