Got empathy?

When you see someone around you in pain or suffering, you probably have the urge to console them. However, there’s a difference between sympathy, empathy and compassion — and the nuances matter.

Empathy is necessary to forge deeper connections. You must do more than merely put yourself in another’s shoes. Instead you must imagine yourself as him or her in the particular situation. After all, you cannot empathize with an abstract or detached feeling. To empathize, you need to understand to some degree who they are and how they came to this situation. It means digging deeper.

Sympathy, empathy and compassion are interconnected, but they are not interchangeable. Sympathy tends to be more at the surface level. It’s a general feeling of care or concern for another. It’s wanting them to feel better or be happier. However, sympathy, unlike empathy, does not call for a shared perspective or taking on another’s emotions.

Sympathy and empathy often lead to each other, but that’s not an absolute. For example, it is possible to sympathize with such things as squirrels and rabbits, but not, strictly speaking, to empathize with them. After all, it’s impossible for humans to understand what it’s like to be a non-human creature. Sympathy should also be distinguished from benevolence. Although it tends to come with good intentions, it’s a much more detached and impartial attitude. Compassion, which most know as “suffering alongside” someone, goes deeper than sympathy and is associated with a deep-seated desire to alleviate another’s suffering.

While sympathy, empathy and compassion all require caring on some level, breakthrough really occurs when you learn to practice empathy. For example, next time someone wants to vent, refrain from offering advice, but rather listen without judgment. Instead of trying to “fix” the issue at hand by offering a different perspective, the remedy is to assure the other person that those feelings are valid, and they’re cared for. That is what differentiates empathy from sympathy.

With this in mind, how might this inform your interactions going forward? I’m confident you’ll enjoy more intimate relationships and derive greater satisfaction from them.

[Monalisa Johnson is a licensed and ordained minister of the gospel and a certified life coach as well as a mother and entrepreneur. In no way is anything that she writes, speaks or shares considered medical advice or clinical therapy. Consider all that you receive to be life coaching and guidance.]

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