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Saturday, June 4, 2011

Symp Or Emp?

The word empathy is derived from the Greek word empatheia, meaning "physical affection, passion, or partiality." Empathy is the ability to identify with and to understand another person's feelings or difficulties. Unlike sympathy, commonly understood as an expression that involves showing pity or sorrow for the pain or distress of somebody else in times of trouble, empathy requires a high vicarious level of awareness.  People can even express sympathy in terms of an emotional contagion.

According to Bryan Veloso (, April 15 2009), "Emotional contagion is much more of an automatic process, rather than a conscious one, which relies on non-verbal communication and even, at times, telecommunication (ie., online emails, forums and chats)." Emotional contagion is the tendency to catch and feel emotions that are similar to and influenced by those of others.

Veloso continues to distinguish the true quality of empathy: "Empathy is the ability to stand in one’s own perspective, while at the same time, possessing the ability to shift perspectives and see through another person’s eyes, as it were. It is a process of understanding and sharing the emotions of another person from a dual perspective with a multilateral self-awareness." 

So, empathy actually takes more imagination, work, or experience to attain than does sympathy. When feeling sympathy, people may not comprehend the state of another, but when people reach true empathy, they vicariously understand the thoughts, feelings, and experiences of a person. The key word in defining empathy is understanding. Someone who has empathy has put on the "clothes" of another person's emotional reactions and has walked a significant distance in those garments.
Empathy is most often referred to as a higher order in the overall complexity of human emotions. The term can even describe a state of transcendent understanding that "blurs the line between self and other." People capable of being profoundly empathetic have subjected themselves to almost total immersion to feel this extraordinary connection. Such intense realization can be a product of the diligent mental work required in the acquisition of empathy. This empathy often occurs because a person has had experiences similar to those of another.

The person reaching empathy might share another's emotional pain, but not necessarily feel sorrow or pity for that person. Nor does empathy require an expression of sorrow. Of course, a person might feel both sympathy and empathy at the same time. In the case of a death experienced by a friend, for example, an empathetic person may express a great understanding of the circumstances with these words: "I feel your pain, and I also share a great love for your father. I'm sorry for your loss."

To quote Veloso, "True Empathy involves truly listening for the other person’s positive intention or 'hope' beyond false presumptions which can arise in a momentary judgment call... It is an act of altruism, as well. It does not seek accolades, awards or thanks. It is genuinely offered, with the purpose of reaching out to another person and helping them, without the expectation of receiving anything in return."(, April 15 2009)

What I Believe About Empathy

I believe feeling empathy for someone else can seem almost impossible. If a situation possesses very unique qualities, or if a situation seems to rankle common sensibilities, people may not even understand the need to connect and use their own abilities to make vital perceptions. In other words, they lack the will to complete the tough attainment of empathy. Or, in fact, they may see no real need at all to be empathetic.

Sometimes, people need empathy when they do wrong. Shouldn't we all try to show empathy and to strive to better comprehend that all humans are mortal beings who constantly learn from their good and bad experiences? Empathy requires that people  "tune into" the entire inner world of others while sympathy requires that people merely turn their attention to only those aspects with which they agree.

How often today do we hear words like this - "I feel sorry for him/her BUT..."? How many times should understandings go beyond this simplistic affinity?

What do I believe a person in need wants to hear? Frequently, what a person in need really wants to hear is “I’ve done that too," "I totally get what you’re saying," or "I've had the same thoughts," from someone else: all expressions of empathy. For example, powerful assistance is so apparent in a circumstance such as this: an empathetic member of a cancer support group expresses concern for a member undergoing radiation therapy and relates an understand of  fear because that member has experienced the procedure as well.

This example of the cancer patient is so simple to comprehend. It illustrates the good will of a good person in a time of need. But, I can't help but wonder what the application of empathy in times of less desirable circumstances could achieve. Maybe we should strive harder to apply the Paul Harvey byline and learn "The Rest of the Story."

What a person tends not to want to hear is “I’m so sorry for you,” an expression of sympathy that makes another feel alone and isolated in grief. People seek an awareness of understanding from others.

Some do not want to empathize because it involves considerable risk. It often makes an individual vulnerable. In that, I mean that showing empathy does require revelation of self, and that exposure can lay bare weaknesses or distasteful struggles. This is a real concern because opening one's own soul spigot is sure to create questionable judgments from others. I guess these folks will be content to sympathize and to draw the line at that point.

In short, reaching an empathetic understanding can prove difficult to say the least. Although doing so may seem unfeasible, it may merely require greater imagination or obligation on behalf of someone who really cares. Certainly, exhibiting true empathy, not just lip service with an offhand "I know how you feel," can be integral in helping someone heal from the wounds of unfortunate circumstances. Too often in times of distress we apply a superficial ointment of sympathy when a person's wounds really require a deep balm of empathy.

Site for Emphatic Perspectives:

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