Friday, January 7, 2022

Empathy and Sympathy

Empathy is the ability for a person to understand, share with, and see a situation from another person's perspective or point of view.

Sympathy is the feelings of sorrow or pity for the misfortunes of others.

I always thought that I was probably born with very little sympathy in my bones. I've been accused of not being the most sensitive person in the world. I think part of it is that I am a male and tend to want to fix things. If something is broken, I want to get a new part and fix it. If something is broken, I want to use my knowledge and can do attitude to get the broken item back in operation. When it comes to someone experiencing a physical or mental issue, I have trouble dealing with it as it is something in which I can't grab a screwdriver or wrench and fix the issue. Most of my life I have probably shown a lot more sympathy than empathy. 

I think I have progressed over the years from being sympathetic to becoming more empathetic as a person. As we gain more experience in life we feel more emotions in a variety of situations that grow the sympathy into empathy. When you are young and both parents are alive, you can show sympathy to a friend or family member who just lost a parent but you don't quite get the true feelings and emotions that go through it.

Once you experience losing a parent you now can have true empathy for a friend or family member who loses a parent because you now know exactly what they are going through and the emotions they are experiencing. With this experience you now have tremendous empathy for someone going through the same thing and you can actually feel the pain along with them.

My wife's cancer diagnosis has ramped up my life experience and increased my empathy quotient. She is currently in treatment at MD Anderson in Houston, TX and is handling it pretty well. We have met some wonderful people at our housing unit that are going through treatments and helped brighten our stay here. Recently I met a man here who's wife was going through breast cancer and was back in town for a scan and checkup. I only knew him for about two days before he called me to talk the evening they found out her results. As soon as I exited my apartment and saw him I knew that he had received bad news. He advised that the doctor had told her she had two months to live. I talked with him, prayed for him and cried with him over the news. I did this with a guy I only knew for two days! It was so unlike me. I truly had such empathy for this man and his wife that I felt the emotions and feelings that he was going through. 

A person who has not had the experiences that create empathy for another person, can not know anything but sympathy for their situation. I have often heard empathy and sympathy used as if they have the same meaning. I can assure you there is a huge difference.

So, when you meet someone in a difficult situation, please, at a minimum have some sympathy towards that person. Never disregard their situation as something that would never happen to you. Life tends to offer us all a similar experience on earth with good times and bad times. 

And not to be a Debbie Downer for this post, we can be there for others in the great times also. We all must share the same feeling during the good times. It is often hard to be enthusiastic at other's happy moments and celebrations. But, if you put yourself in their shoes and remember how happy you felt when you got married, had kids, graduated kids from high school and college, had grandkids, got a promotion, had a milestone birthday or anniversary or any other great moment you can share in their joys and enjoy their moment along with them. So, the next time you head to a wedding that you really don't want to go to, think about the feelings that the bride and groom are having and go help them enjoy their day with a smile on your face. 

Do you have a story in which you were surprised by your empathy in that situation? Have you noticed, that as you get older that you have more empathy because of your own experiences? What is your take on empathy and sympathy? 


  1. I "always" thought empathy was when you could relate to someone that experienced something that you had yourself experienced. Like for instance I would have empathy with someone who had lost their mother as I have lost my mother and know the grief/sorrow that goes with it. I would have sympathy with someone who has lost a child. I can understand their grief, but I can't have that same experience they are going through as I have (thankfully) not lost a child. That's my take, for what it is worth.

    I try to have sympathy with others around me, especially if I do not know what they may be going through and they are not acting in perhaps the most appropriate way. If someone is rude to me, I try not to get back to them with rudeness but again wonder what they are dealing with and try to give them some grace.

    I think you were in the right place at the right time to offer whatever support you could do for that man who received that devastating news about his wife.


    1. Sounds like you are doing well in this department. Keep up the good work! My wife and I are true believers that God puts us in the path of others or puts others in our paths for a reason.