We have heard it from friends, family and strangers; and we have likely offered it ourselves—over coffee, in heavy whispers, and tied upon the threads of Facebook. The constant call for perspective in the face of hardship is a common response to tragic events and the endless lessons of life’s relative reminders. The sentiment is almost always intended as commiseration, the implication of compassion through a spin of sympathy; however, that is a context based on comparison, and where sympathy is kind and appreciated, it is not exactly empathy. There is a difference.
According to Merriam Webster empathy is “the feeling that you understand and share another person’s experiences and emotions, the ability to share someone else’s feelings.” Whereas the definition given to sympathy is “the feeling that you care about and are sorry about someone else’s trouble, grief, misfortune, etc.”
Granted, there is some gray area, and the two feelings tend to overlap in some significant ways, but empathy, the deeper understanding of another person’s emotions, is such that we recognize the power of our own response and the weight of the words that we deliver. Sympathy is the expression that we care from the outside looking in, which, obviously, is powerful enough to stand on its own, and should, yet all too often we just can’t let it. This is where we feel the need to attach our proclamations of perspective—the personal lens through which we tell someone that we are sorry for their pain, pause for a moment, then add how thankful we are that the tragedy at hand did not befall us.
Care for an example?
Think about Facebook. You have probably (and unfortunately) seen an update where someone has announced their battle with illness, loss, or injury. You may have seen something like this recently, because a) life isn’t fair, and b) most of us long for the comfort found in our community. We need their sympathy.
That is, when someone says, “I am sorry for _______” or “I am thinking of you and _________,” these words of consolation hold meaning that is seldom understood until you are the one receiving them, surprisingly so, and they are kind enough. We say them. We mean them. It is a good place to stop.
Adding “that just shows how we really need to appreciate our __________” or “I’m going to hug my __________ extra tight tonight,” is just telling the recipient of said solace that you are relieved to have escaped such hardship in even tighter quarters, that their time of sorrow has released your sigh of relief.
I get it. It is natural to immediately equate our own life and loved ones with those in question. We can’t help it, and, oftentimes, we may build our sympathy upon it.
We just don’t need to say it. Or better yet, think it through, as far as you are willing to take it, until you find yourself on the receiving end of the words in play and can wrap your mind around it. Under the circumstances, that would be as close to empathy as you would ever want to be.
To be empathetic, with regard to times of sadness, often stems from the unfortunate reality of having already experienced a similar form of tragedy. To “understand and share another person’s experiences and emotions” is alarmingly easy once you have had your own version of them, and while it is impossible to fully comprehend the feelings of another, that empathetic connection is built upon the experiences you would wish on no one. When you get it you don’t need someone else’s pain to give you perspective. You already have it.
Consider the concept of the grief circle (or grief wheel) and the flow of conversation that it illustrates. It is perfectly acceptable to project our aforementioned prospective toward the outer limits, because, frankly, sometimes it is just something we need to do; however, it is a one-way street and understanding that brings us all one step closer to achieving actual empathy.
The bottom line is that it isn’t about us—those that hear the news or read the update, regardless of how it calls us to action—it is about the person who is hurting. The only perspective required from us is to understand the support that we can offer, and then the immediate giving of it.
It’s rather simple when you think about it.
For more, watch this animated video showcasing Brené Brown’s take on the differences between empathy and sympathy (fun fact, I once “opened” for Brown at the Dad 2.0 Summit, and whereas her talk was full of insight and compassion, mine was mostly filled with the f-word, because art!).
Whit Honea is the co-founder of Dads 4 Change, the Social Media Director and Community Manager of Dad 2.0 Summit as well as a Senior Account Executive at the conference’s parent company: XY Media Group. Deemed “the activist dad” by UpWorthy (and one of the “funniest dads on Twitter” by Mashable), he is a regular contributor to The Modern Dads Podcast and the author of The Parents’ Phrase Book—a family guide to empathy.