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Empathy vs. Sympathy

emotional intelligence empathy grief heartache story Apr 12, 2022

Humans hate being uncomfortable. We don’t like feeling pain, grief, fear, anxiety, depression, heartache, sorrow, and a variety of other emotions. When our brains start feeling pain, they want to “fix” the problem or find ways to avoid feeling those emotions.

This is why empathy is so so difficult.

If we truly empathize with someone who is going through hard things, we have to allow ourselves to be in their space and to feel a piece of their uncomfortable emotion, and just sit there. Empathizing stirs up past experiences, difficult memories, current trials, and grief. We don’t like re-living the painful parts of our lives.

Many of us are fixers. We want to help. We see someone hurting and in pain and we want to offer them something - hope, perspective, relief, humor, peace. We think if we tell them how they should feel, what they can do, to take a Band-Aid or quick fix, it will help them feel better.

I mean, isn’t that what Band-Aids are for? If one of my kids falls down and his knee is bleeding, I pull out the Band-Aid first aid box we keep in our kitchen. I search for the antiseptic cream, the correct type and size of Band-Aid, and whatever other supplies they may need. I wash the wound, apply the cream, put the Band-Aid on, and give them an otter-pop.

Easy peasy! I’ve been doing it for most of my life now!

Empathy is so different though. If you’re going to empathize with someone, there is no Band-Aid you can offer, no cream to help with the pain and possibility of future infections.

A good friend of mine is going through treatment for cancer. I asked her if there were things people say that hurt more than helped. She shared with me that one of the hardest things people say to her is that she should “be positive”. To someone going through a trial, the advice to “be positive” tells them that if they aren’t positive then they aren’t doing things right. But there is no “right” way to go through an experience like that. There are so many complicated emotions that are important to feel and experience. Sure, she may have moments of positivity, but she will most likely have more moments of grief, loss, frustration, loneliness, pain, sadness, and weakness. Positivity is only 1/1000 of the emotions she should and will feel. If she isn’t feeling positive or happy, then she’s still feeling exactly what she should be.

 Recently my son, his wife, and my sweet granddaughter moved overseas indefinitely. They had been living with us and we were very close.  My heart felt like it was breaking into millions of pieces. I tried to reach out for support and ended up deleting my post on Facebook after getting some painful responses. The hardest thing people would say almost always started with the phrase “Well at least…” I knew they meant well but what I really needed was a friend to acknowledge the pain and let me know they loved me.

I’m telling you right now that no matter what someone is going through or what they are experiencing, if your advice to them begins with “Well at least…” STOP IMMEDIATELY.

Below is a link to a fantastic video clip from Brené Brown, one of my favorite researchers, authors, and speakers. It’s super short and something everyone should watch.

Click here to watch Brené Brown's video. 


Empathy drives connection. Sympathy drives disconnection.

My friends, when someone is going through something, be there for them. Even better, be there WITH them. Sit in their space and say nothing. Allow them to talk. Tell them you’re sorry. Tell them you don’t understand and you don’t know what to say but that you’re there if they need you.

Here are some cringe worthy NON empathetic things one can say to someone else. These examples are from a New York Times article on grief you can find at the link  here.

“My first husband died of cancer when he was 35 and I was 26,” recounted Patrice Werner. “I still recoil when I think of the number of people who said, ‘You’re young; you’ll find someone else.’”

 “My only child, Jesse, committed suicide at age 30,” Valerie P. Cohen recalled. “A friend wrote, ‘I know exactly how you feel, because my dog just died.’”

 “I’m so sorry for your loss to lung cancer. Did he smoke?” Or, if it was a heart attack, “Was she overweight?” (Her: “You are just trying to find reassurance that this scary, scary thing won’t happen to you. Stop it.”)

 “At least she isn’t suffering,” was a particularly unhelpful line submitted by Beth Braker, who had to hear it. “At least you have other children,” recalled Margaret Gannon. “At least she didn’t die of AIDS,” remembered Jill Falzoi. “At least now you can have your own life,” Mary Otterson heard. (“I always had my own life,” she added. “Now I just have it without her in it.”)

Other unhelpful comments when someone is grieving include:

  • “She’s in a better place now,”
  • “It was God’s plan,”
  • “God wanted him/her up in heaven,”
  • “You’ll see her/him again someday,”
  • “Stay strong,” or “Be strong.”

So what are the helpful things we can say to someone who is experiencing something hard?

Next time you have a friend struggling with something hard, try saying one of the phrases below.

  • “I’m so sorry,”
  • “Whatever you are feeling, and whenever you are feeling it, it’s O.K.,”
  • “I wish I had the right words for you,”
  • “I can’t imagine what you are going through, but I am here to listen if you need me.”

Or you could just give the person a hug and let them know you’re thinking about them.

The most helpful things people have said to me during the hardest moments of my life have helped me feel validated, heard, understood, and cared for. A hug goes a long way. A friendly visit or invitation to something fun is worth a lot. A squeeze of my hand or arm also lets me know you are here and love me.

Why do we need to practice more empathy and less sympathy?

Because the world needs so much more empathy. It needs people who listen, care, and try to understand someone else’s story and pain. The world needs people who will not just say they care, but show they care. Although we have more ways to communicate with others than we ever had before, studies are showing that we are more lonely now than we’ve ever been. We are starving for human connection - real true human connection. We are forgetting the importance of putting down our devices for a moment to look someone in the eye and sincerely have a desire to hear what they are saying.

I look back at some of the incredibly WRONG things I’ve said to people suffering and cringe. I feel so bad that I have said the wrong things in an attempt to “help” people feel better. Unfortunately for me, hard experiences are my best teachers.

I look back now and long to hug my friends, express my feelings, and sit with them in their moments of pain. To empathize, not sympathize. Because that’s true connection.

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