Empathy has become a buzzword over the last few years, as the age of technology has made it an ever-rarer and yet eternally more desirable trait for everything from romance to careers. As a general rule, empathy is considered the ability to understand someone else’s feelings, to put yourself in their shoes. Some people, however, confuse this with sympathy, an inclination to feel alike. Put simply, empathy is about feeling with you, sympathy is about feeling for you. I have a lot of experience with this confusion because I am pretty good at empathy, but I am terrible at sympathy.
I found this video on empathy a while back, and I think it describes the difference between empathy and sympathy very well! Sympathy is saying “Ooh, that’s bad” or trying desperately to paint a silver lining out of discomfort, while empathy is sitting in the discomfort together. If you’ve ever lost a loved one, you can probably remember at least one person who just kept trying to point out perks, “At least they aren’t suffering anymore,” and who just could not handle sadness and grieving. Chances are, their over-the-top insistence on positivity probably didn’t lift you up at all. When people did that after my grandfather passed, I found myself more irritated than anything, and left more lonely than I was before. The most comforting words I heard were “He was a good man, I loved him too, and I am grieving with you.”
The most beautiful thing about empathy is that it does not require extreme action. You don’t have to have the perfect words, or be just the right person, or push a conversation that person does not want to have. All you have to do is sit with them and feel with them. “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15, ESV). Allow yourself to connect with another human, recognize the emotions they are feeling (and if possible, why they are feeling them), and stay in that place with them so they know that they are not alone.
Another beautiful thing about empathy is that it not only can have boundaries, but benefits from them! We’ll go into more detail about that on Wednesday, but for now, know that being empathetic does not mean being a doormat — it means feeling with people, and being able to say “thank you for letting me in, but I need to go now.”