What does it truly mean to be empathetic? For those who lack empathy it can be a tough concept to wrap your head around. To make things worse, there’s another “pathy” word out there, Sympathy. Isn’t that the same thing as empathy? Aren’t they interchangeable? The answer is NO! Sympathy and empathy are NOT one and the same. Far from it in fact. I recently saw a short video describing this difference extremely well. In it Dr. Brené Brown states that empathy drives connection while sympathy drives disconnection.
In the video, Dr. Brown narrates as a bear tries to comfort his friend the fox. Dr. Brown introduces the concept of empathy, what the bear is trying to achieve, and contrasts it with that of sympathy, what an intruding antelope exhibits. “Ooh, it’s bad, uh huh” he says. Not very empathetic. Showing empathy for someone else requires “perspective taking, staying out of judgment, recognizing emotions in other people and communicating that.” In other words, you have to try and feel what the other person is feeling. Not an easy or a simple task. It’s quite a vulnerable undertaking actually. You have to try to connect to a part of yourself that has also felt that pain, or a similar pain. And even if you haven’t been in their situation and can’t even begin to think of what to say, that’s okay too. As Dr. Brown says at the end of the video: “rarely does a response make something better.” I encourage you to watch the video yourself (embedded below) and try to be more aware of your own responses to others. Are you being empathetic or sympathetic? And remember, even if you can’t think of something to say, just being there for them is a great start.
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