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We Are Often Confused Empathy With Sympathy but What’s The Difference Actually?

We Are Often Confused Empathy With Sympathy but What’s The Difference Actually?

In general, sympathy and empathy are often confused with one another. There is good reason for this too, primarily because both words deal with similar emotions and are derived from the Greek term páthos (which pertains to suffering and feeling). These words are also commonly ascribed to situations of sadness and mourning, as people try to identify with a particular group or individual that has been afflicted by tragedy.

Despite the similarities in terms of application and origin, however, there are core differences that separate the two words. Sympathy describes the feelings of compassion and pity that we may have for another person’s plight, for example, whereas empathy enables us to put ourselves in the shoes of those who are suffering and share directly in their sadness.

Empathy vs Sympathy: Exploring the Differences

In our bid to explore this further, let’s return to the Greek origins of both words. We have already touched on how they have been derived from the word ‘Pathos’. However the prefix ‘sym’ in ‘sympathy’ also relates to the Greek iteration ‘syn’ (which means ‘together with’). Conversely, the prefix ’em’ in ’empathy’ derives from the Greek description of ‘within’, highlighting the core difference between showing solidarity with others and vicariously immersing yourself in their plight.

    To put this into context, let’s cast our mind’s back to David Beckham’s sending -off for England in the 1998 World Cup against Argentina. While there was vehement criticism of his actions and the impact that they had on the team (England were eliminated after a valiant display), casual and non-partisan observers had sympathy for Beckham as they believed that he was being harshly treated.

    Fellow professionals who had endured similar scrutiny during their careers expressed empathy with Beckham, however, as they were able to place themselves directly in his shoes and understand precisely how he was being affected. The same principle applies to individuals who have also suffered heavy criticism or persecution in the workplace, even if their experience not directly related to Beckham’s.

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    Those who were close to Beckham also expressed empathy, as they had endured similar afflictions also suffered after the event and found themselves vicariously sharing in the English midfielders plight.

    How do these differences manifest themselves in terms of thought and deed?

    To begin with, sympathizers will share their concern and condolences with others while openly admitting that they have no direct knowledge of how they actually feel. This often translates into generic support that is offered unconditionally, without actionable advice or additional input that may diminish the sufferer’s state of mind.

    In contrast, those with the ability to emphasize will instantly immerse themselves in the shoes of others, by tapping into a shared experience or relating to a similar one. This means that you visualize how the individual in question is feeling, and have the subsequent ability to treat them in a way that is relevant and appropriate. Similarly, an empathetic outlook enables you to offer valuable insight and advice, which may help the individual to develop new coping mechanisms.

    Sympathy And Empathy Are Different, But They Are Central to You Becoming a More Compassionate Person

      At this point, it is worth noting that being both empathetic and sympathetic is mutually exclusive. This means you can showcase both individually, either simultaneously or as each individual scenario requires. It is important to remember this, as having both a sympathetic and an empathetic mind-set enables you to become a compassionate person who can offer the relevant comfort and support to those in need.

      Not only this, but there are also other scientific and psychological benefits of being compassionate, including the following:

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      1. It Uplifts Those Around You

        In simple terms, showcasing compassion has been proven to have an uplifting impact on those around you. According to Jonathan Haidt at the University of Virginia, witnessing people help others creates a state of elevation in the human mind, while it also empowers them to do the same.

        2. It Inspires Action

          On a similar note, compassion is also proven as a great motivator of action. Certain studies have explored this at length, revealing that subjects who had been meditating and focused inwardly were more likely to act on their sense of compassion, even if it opposed a social convention. This shows how powerful compassion can be, and highlights its ability to drive specific actions.

          3. It is Infectious

            We have already touched on how compassion can create a state of elevation and inspire others, and there is no doubt that is has a dominant effect on the mind of others (particularly those who have benefited from acts of compassion). James Fowler of UC San Diego claims that this is the representation of how kindness reaches out to others and sparks a chain reaction, and not only because people feel compelled to comply with the actions of others.

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            4. It Makes Us Less Likely to Avoid Those in Pain

              Let’s face facts; the sight of others being in pain can be distressing, and it is natural to seek flight during such times. It has been proven that a fortified sense of compassion changes this conditioned response over time, as avoiding negative emotions is replaced directly with positive compassionate actions.

              5. It Makes Us More Attractive to Others

                From a purely insular perspective, it is also interesting to note that being compassionate makes us more attractive to others. Studies on dating preferences have shown that both men and women rank kindness as one of the most important qualities that they look for in a partner, as this ties in to our fundamental desire to be loved and taken care of at all times.

                How Can You Become More Compassionate as an Individual

                There are numerous benefits of being compassionate, far more than we have listed here. In order to capitalise on these you will need to become a more rounded and compassionate individual, however, and the good news is that compassion can be learned and honed through training techniques such as meditation.

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                  But what are the core elements of this, and what practical steps can you take to become a more compassionate individual? Let’s take a look:

                  1. Listen because who doesn’t want to be heard?

                  At the heart of every compassionate person is an innate ability to listen, but this is one of the hardest life-skills to develop. It requires us to suspend all judgement and offer our undivided attention to speakers, as we digest their words and the context in which they are spoken. This is central to acts of both sympathy and empathy, as listening enables us to respond in the most relevant and impactful manner.

                  2. Respond to the Emotion because this shows your care.

                  As we have already said, it is important to consider the context that words are spoken in when listening to others, and more specifically the emotion that underpins them. By delving beyond literal interpretations and accepting that words alone can conceal emotions such as guilt, fear and anxiety, we can understand others in greater depth and build compassionate relationships going forward.

                  3. Prioritize the Person so they feel important

                  When we talk about compassion, empathy and sympathy, we are almost always referring to someone who is spiraling into a negative path. The key to be compassionate is to recognize the positive attributes that define the person in question, and never lose sight of their human qualities. This ensures that you judge each specific situation rather than the person involved, while it also offers you an opportunity to reinforce these characteristics and build positivity.

                  4. Be Patient because there might be a lot going on.

                  When attempting to reach someone who is gripped by negative emotions, it can be difficult to build trust and rapport. While the tips listed above will help you to become more compassionate and a superior listener, you will also need to display tremendous patience as people begin to realize that they can open up to you. This will certainly require a selfless outlook, and one that always places the needs of the sufferer ahead of your own.

                  5. Respond With Feeling to show you feel their sorrow, pain and worry.

                  No matter how much listening you have to do as a compassionate individual, there will always come a time to respond. This is where your understanding of the other person and their plight is imperative, as this should condition your response and promote an honest, meaningful reaction. The key here is that you respond with feeling , as this showcases the fact that you care and remain immersed in the other person’s trials.

                  The Last Word

                  While we have observed numerous differences between sympathy and empathy, they share a common origin while both lay the foundations for becoming a caring and compassionate person. The benefits of this are numerous, both for you and the mental well-being of those around you.

                  Featured photo credit: PublicCo / Pixabay via pixabay.com

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                  Last Updated on October 16, 2018

                  How to Overcome Your Irrational Fears (That Stop You from Succeeding)

                  How to Overcome Your Irrational Fears (That Stop You from Succeeding)

                  She could hear her beautiful baby crying but was frozen in the doorway unable to move. The crying got worse and she knew that unless she comforted the infant soon the baby would be inconsolable, and yet her feet wouldn’t move. She didn’t look at the cot but the floor in front, where the venomous hairy monster sat before her…. .okay it was a UK spider so not likely to kill her at all, and yet still her body was frozen as the tears fell down her face. “What a useless mother you are” she berated herself.

                  That awful mother was me 14 years ago. My fear of spiders had not been controlled for years and I was at the stage where I wouldn’t open a newspaper until my husband had read it and removed the images of spiders. I hated houses that had wooden floors or skirting boards because every knot in the wood could be a spider about to crawl across me.

                  At the height of my fear, I tried to get out of a moving car. Clearly this harmless 8-legged creature had massive levels of power over me but now that fear is gone, I’m never going to love spiders but I’m not going to leave the room because of one and I can read the word without freaking out and sobbing.

                  If you think that fear is irrational, what about the fear of going to airports? Or the fear of not asking for help?

                  Today I want to look at how our irrational fears impact on us, how they can destroy (and I don’t use that word lightly) our success. They can damage our health and even stop us from living our lives. And then I’ll share the benefits of fighting that fear and most importantly how you can fight your fears too.

                  How irrational fears impact your life

                  The thing about irrational fears is that we are not keen to look at them. It makes us feel inadequate, weak and daft because we can’t do things that it seems everyone else can. That gives the fear power.

                  Fear loves negative emotions and saps up yours making your fear bigger and uglier and even more powerful. Not ideal to say the least. Fears can cause us to:

                  • Avoid situations where that fear may have to be faced. Dodging parties, new jobs, new experiences where we aren’t sure we will be able to protect ourselves.
                  • Stop us from sleeping for fear the thing we fear will “get us in the night.” For me this was massive, and I stopped sleeping which had massive implications when my job was to look after a toddler and a baby. I felt half dead most of the time!
                  • Feel ill with the stress. Stress can be the cause of wrong decisions. Drinking alcohol when we shouldn’t, eating chocolate because it makes us feel better, the list of excuses is long that we hold on to so that we can avoid the cause of our stress.
                  • Cause more distress as our minds overload us with negative thoughts of inadequacy. This can damage our confidence. Having coached thousands, I know that a lack of confidence is usually the underlining impactor on most people’s success across all areas of their lives.
                  • Risk looking aloof or arrogant because we won’t participate like other people. Our fears can even isolate us in our personal and professional lives too.
                  • Feel debilitated. Needless to say, these fears may look irrational and shouldn’t exist to the outside world but to the sufferer they are debilitating. Even impacting on their earning potential, love life, hobbies, travels and personal and professional success.

                  Why bother to fight the fear

                  Couldn’t you just ensure you live your life in way that you don’t have to deal with your fear?

                  I had a client that was so scared of flying that they couldn’t even take their partner to the airport, another who had avoided public speaking for over 20 years and yet now at the height of their profession they had no choice, what were they going to do? Quit? There was another who could never ask for help and another who feared people finding out who they really were.

                  All these fears and many more can be fixed but only if we can appreciate the benefits of fighting the fear.

                  Let’s look at the benefits of fighting your fears:

                  If you’re going to change the way you do something, something that has impacted on your life, thoughts and actions for years, it can be hard to believe change is possible.

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                  The first thing you must do is give yourself a big enough reason why. Go back through your life and remember all the occasions that this fear was there.

                  I can still see the spider trapped in my hair because it had obviously been on my hairdryer. I also remember that I probably looked ludicrous in the South of France in my underwear running down the lane screaming and flinging my hair everywhere. The poor spider had not only been flung a long way from my head but was probably destroyed in the flight.

                  Remember the feelings, the actions, the negative feelings you felt afterwards, for me it meant that every time I picked up a hairdryer I could see a spider crawling towards my ear in my hair. Guess how helpful that was for reinforcing my reactions and irrational fear?

                  Really experience the fear. Make it so painful that you probably notice your heart racing, your shoulders drawing up and your breath changing. That fear is causing physical change in your body, doesn’t feel good does it?

                  When the irrational fear is challenged and destroyed, it can’t have power over you. So new opportunities can come your way and instead of fearing them and what people will think of you for your choices, you can be open to;

                  • New hobbies
                  • New travels
                  • New opportunities
                  • More success
                  • Financially more secure
                  • Happier
                  • Healthier
                  • Confident

                  The list is long so what can you do to get rid of your fears?

                  How to fight your irrational fears

                  In my book Fight the Fear: How to Beat Your Negative Mindset and Win in Life, I cover 12 of the biggest fears that I see impact on success and happiness. Not all of these are obvious but they all have far reaching impacts on our lives.

                  Here are some of those ideas to help you fight your fear and get more of what you want out of life:

                  Why did this happen?

                  For some people they really need to know why the fear started, for others all they want is to get rid of it. If you need to understand yours then don’t skip this tip. Learn how your fears are made and appreciate where yours came from. If you don’t care how it arrived, you can jump to top tip 2.

                  I’ve seen some clients who are not prepared to look at how to get rid of the fear until they’ve understood how it got here in the first place. It’s not my place to tell them that is right or wrong, just to help them find the right steps to lead them to a happy path.

                  When a fear first starts, we don’t acknowledge a fear has entered our lives. It is only after a few occasions that we begin to notice that there’s a strong negative emotion connected to this “thing”. That’s how fear is allowed to grow because as humans we have in-built responses that have kept us safe for our entire existence. This means we are meant to perceive fear and either run or fight, either way our bodies jump into action creating physical responses to the perceived threat.

                  Look for when you first noticed the fast heart beat, the shallow breathing, the shaking hands, the redness. You have created an automatic way of dealing with this fear. It could be that it felt sensible to fear this because you had an unhappy outcome, although it is usually the case that your head has the facts and your heart is not prepared to hear them as it creates a version of the event that is far scarier than it actually was.

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                  Learning how to remove the emotions and feelings will help you to change your body’s response. The first time I fixed someone’s fear of public speaking, they told me that it physically closed their throat, I worried that was it possible with words to change our physicality? The answer was yes! With the tools and techniques I share below.

                  The tool kit

                  From the many people that have contacted me after reading Fight the Fear to my clients, I know for even myself creating a tool kit is a must. This is not a bag that you physically must haul everywhere. This is about learning tools that really resonate with you so that when you can feel the fear start to impact on you, you’ve got your kit ready to take it on.

                  I don’t have the space in one article to share all of those tools so let’s visit a few:

                  1. Why I’m awesome

                  Creating a 2-page handwritten document of why you are awesome can help. This document will be packed with achievements, successes, overcoming adversity and all of those will be full of positive emotions, actions and feelings. It is not easy to write, and I get many messages telling me so however it is a powerful reminder that you can stand up and accomplish.

                  2. Draw out your emotions

                  Earlier we looked at how irrational fears can damage every aspect of our lives. If you were to follow the negative spiral down you can follow the positive spiral up again.

                  I draw these individually for clients and with each action, thought or feeling we put an arrow between them. Each arrow is an opportunity to do something different. If we know that irrational fear is an automatic thought process, then we can start to see that we need to think, do or feel something different. Top tip 3 will help with that.

                  3. Acknowledge that you need to change

                  It’s not easy to change, and that is a belief that many hold. Top tip 4 could assist further, however for this tip, remember that when you want to do, think or feel differently, you’ve already achieved the first step and that is recognizing something must change (you don’t need to know what). But if you aren’t sure yet if there’s really something different you want to do, this story about Nancy may help you to figure it out.

                  Then it’s about acknowledging it. That means not only accepting it but feeling that it is yours to take on and change.

                  Then for 2 weeks, decide that you won’t allow the thought to be in your head. There are usually some negative thoughts allowed to fester in your head. At this stage, just say “No I’d like you to stop.” After 2 weeks choose a new thought that you would prefer to hear in your head, maybe “I can cope with situations that scare me” or “I am stronger than I know”.

                  There will be times when you fail. Don’t berate yourself because that is another negative thought you are allowing your head to process. Just start again and at times like that have a read of your “Why I’m awesome list”.

                  4. Choose your words carefully.

                  I’ve heard many clients tell me that “It’s going to be hard to change” “I can’t remember a time in my life where I wasn’t petrified” or “This is a lot to ask”. Any thought that gives power to your fear takes away power from you to fight it. Therefore, choose how you word your goal to overcome your fear carefully.

                  Think thoughts like “I remember when I achieved xxxx and that reminds me I’m far tougher and more capable than I give myself credit for”. (Take the xxx from your why I’m awesome document.)

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                  5. Believe that you have the control power

                  The only person that can control what we think and feel is us. I know it can feel like other people are impacting on us, however they can only do that if we give them permission to do so.

                  If you really think about that for a moment, can you see that you have the right to think and feel anything you want right now? I’m certain you wouldn’t choose pain, fear or anxiety. So, what would you choose to think about your fear?

                  6. Put up physical reminders

                  Working one to one, I can find the fear, work through it and create a tool kit of thoughts, feelings and actions that will help them fight that fear and get rid of it. For some, they don’t need physical things to help them; others do.

                  For example, the CEO who was petrified of public speaking but could handle a conference call with 300 without a second thought, imagined the microphone was a phone when they spoke in front of 400 people to help reinforce the positive thoughts and ideas we’d created.

                  Or the client that always worried that they were an imposter and “someone else can do this better” pinned on their office wall a tag cloud of all the words that made up their “Why I’m awesome document”.

                  So they had a daily reminder. They were the right one for the job and they could do it. These daily reminders all come down to one key point — help you to Hack the Habit Loop.

                  What would be your visual clues to remind you that you can overcome this?

                  7. Physical supports

                  Music, environment and even smells can impact on us. Know the music that makes you feel alive and ready for anything. Try aromatherapy oils to feel positive and energised. Even choose your work environment or clothing to empower you.

                  Changing these things is physical and giving yourself physical ideas to action can help power up your emotional state too.

                  8. Don’t go it alone

                  The fear to ask for help is very real (and has a whole chapter in my book) so I know people really struggle with this. The fact is we all need people. We are not insular by design and as such it can be tough to admit that you have a fear impacting on you.

                  However, by sharing your fear with a trusted friend, colleague or loved one can mean that when you are feeling the fear. you can talk to someone. It could be that you share with them the contents of your tool kit and ask their permission to be added to it. That way they know what works for you and how to best support you.

                  It’s not a sign of weakness to tell people about your fear. It takes massive levels of strength to say, “I have this fear, and I want to get rid of it.”

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                  9. Get physical

                  One of the reasons that a fear can escalate is because we have come to accept that response. Our body reacted in a certain way, once repeated the behaviour and it became a formed habit that was accepted.

                  Challenging a fear can be done using our body too when we appreciate that fear is actually a reaction inside our bodies. We don’t need to understand where in our brains or what chemicals are racing through us to use our physicality to help us challenge our fears.

                  When I was writing my book, the Cuddy Superhero pose was proved and disproved by various researchers around the world 3 times. Whether it’s real or not, the fact is the way we stand, the way we breathe and even the speed at which we speak can impact on us as well as those around us.

                  If you have a fear of public speaking or a fear of people thinking you are stupid or a fear of what people are thinking you can look at how you speak, stand and move. If you compare these with people you deem confident and happy in these situations, how do you look? What can you learn?

                  The research around placebo’s reinforces us that if it feels like it is working, then keep doing it! What could you use to help reinforce your power and fearlessness?

                  A little fear can be good

                  As someone famous once says:

                  “It is not fear, it is performance energy.”

                  Despite having an absolute hatred of public speaking 10 years ago, I now love an audience and yet I have a healthy level of fear. That level of fear says “Are you well prepared?” “Do you know your audience?” “Have you rested your voice?” “You really want to deliver to this audience what they need” And those thoughts are sensible.

                  And just remember, it’s never ever too late to face your fear and do what you desire most! It’s even possible to start over your life no matter what stage of life you’re at. Here’s the proof:

                  How to Start Over and Reboot Your Life When It Seems Too Late

                  So as you reduce your fear, be aware of a good level of fear.

                  Featured photo credit: Isaiah Rustad via unsplash.com

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