Empathy vs. Sympathy

Empathy vs. Sympathy. So, what is the difference? Well, I am glad you asked….so here is my take on it…Imagine you have experienced something really challenging in your life. Now for most of us this is not too hard to do. If we have been on this planet longer than a minute, we probably have experienced the effects of this physical incarnation….in plain terms…life can be hard. So, imagine you share your thoughts, emotions, struggles around this event to a trusted person in your life. Sympathy would say, “wow looks like you are really struggling over there, that sucks….”. Now on the surface this may seem like a suitable response, but let’s look at the same scenario from the voice of empathy. Empathy might say, “I can’t begin to know all the things you are feeling in this moment, but I imagine you are experiencing a wide variety of thoughts and emotions. I am here to sit with and support you in any way I can”. You see the subtle difference? The first response comes from our own perspective of the situation, while the empathetic response sinks deeper into an effort to see the experience from another’s perspective. The sympathetic response doesn’t leave much room for connection, whereas empathy goes the extra mile and calls us to leave the comfortable house of our own mind and step across the threshold of the door of another person’s experience. Empathy requires us to be willing to sit in the dark with others without trying to turn on all the lights. To be so comfortable with our own stuff, mess and all, to be able to plop down on the couch next to someone in their own experience. We can never know the full spectrum of someone else’s experience, but we can relate to and understand the grit and grime of life that sometimes seems challenging to wash off. Empathy is the ability to get a little dirty, see through different eyes, and love profoundly in the midst of it all.

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