Understanding Empathy vs. Sympathy When Caring for Others

By | November 18, 2021

Recently, I commented on the subject of hope and its polarity with reality. This comment elicited a response from a sagacious person who responded with an incredibly poignant statement, “Empathy without emotional attachment is extremely difficult.” Hence, I began to contemplate the meaning of this within how we as clinicians must deal with those that are managing the need for hope and the subsequent reality of a situation.

Based on the formal definition, empathy identifies understanding and vicarious experience of another person’s feelings. In contrast, sympathy acknowledges another person’s hardships or misfortune and provides words or acts of comfort. The difference is between actual feeling and recognition; a person shares empathy and expresses sympathy. Understanding and experiencing the emotions that others might have does not require us to create unobtainable situations.

This coordination of understanding and one’s personal emotions is an extremely difficult polarity in itself. It is said that the longest eighteen inches is the distance between one’s head and one’s heart. Furthermore, we are “feeling animals” and have also been given the blessing of reasoning. If we merely think our way through a situation, we may be sympathetic yet create detrimental situations. However, if we reason without attempting to be empathic, we will become cold and callous and avoid the needs of others.

Regardless of the situation, understanding and managing both of our human components is imperative for us to support others, and more importantly, manage ourselves in a manner that is helpful to our patients. Resilience occurs when we accept these dynamics and create coping mechanisms for the personal struggle they may cause. Another very important part of us supporting our patients is to ensure we fill our own hope buckets if we are to be there for others. Our hope must come from our own handling of the empathy and sympathy we carry for others. Our actions must emulate our understanding of the need for compassion and our personal feelings of sympathy.

We must not be void of sympathy; however, we must utilize it in our ability to have empathy and interact with those we serve in a manner that elevates our humanism without causing undue pain and suffering. If this all sounds difficult, you are right, it is. However, avoidance is not the answer, nor is shutting down one’s own emotions. Through understanding and realization, we will have the capacity to assist others in need and grow as individuals on our own journeys.