Updated: May 11
Sympathy cards, sympathetic calls to action, being a sympathetic person, being sympathetic to a cause… Sympathy is generally seen as being considerate, thoughtful of others. But is it really? At first glance, sympathy is considerate and thoughtful, but only at first glance. When examined, sympathy just doesn’t cut the mustard. And, on its own, sympathy is damaging. Empathy is really where the magic happens. Sympathy is just how we get to this magical place.
Sympathy is a great beginning because it asks us to think about being in someone else’s shoes. When a friend loses a pet, I might say something like, “I’m so sorry. I understand how you feel, I lost my dog last year. It was horrible. I’m here for you if you need anything.” Or, when I meet someone in a wheelchair, I may think to myself, “Wow, that’s horrible. Life must be so much harder for them."
There’s nothing seriously wrong with these statements, but there’s also nothing about them that rights the situations or challenges that I’ve observed. I’ve offered my sympathy, my understanding of somebody else’s experience. I’ve acknowledged there’s a problem, but I haven’t helped to solve it. In the case of my friend, I offered to be there should they need anything. But, more than likely, my friend doesn’t know what they need. Even if they did, maybe they’re so overwhelmed with grief and shock that they don’t know how to ask for it. The truth is that I have no idea what my friend is feeling, or needing, or experiencing, because I didn’t ask.
This is where empathy’s opportunity resides, and this is where thought leadership comes in.
When sympathy states, “I can only imagine how you feel,” empathy asks, “How are you feeling/coping with this?” Sympathy requires us to feel for someone, whereas empathy requires us to feel with someone. With sympathy, we understand only in the context of our own experiences. With empathy, we take the time to understand someone else’s experience.
When discussing this concept with a colleague, they shared they recently expressed sympathy towards a friend who’d experienced a loss because they didn’t know what else to say, or to ask. They instinctively knew something was off but didn’t fully understand what. Their relationship hadn’t been the same since, they said, and wondered if their lack of empathy was the cause. They felt terrible and were going to reach out to their friend and see.
They shouldn’t feel terrible, to the contrary. My colleague did the best that they could for their friend. Now that they’ve discovered how they could possibly be a better friend, they’re acting on it. They should feel great about this! When a mistake is made, name it, don’t shame it. There’s truly no need.
My colleague also recognized that intent and impact are two very different things. Often, despite our best intent, they don’t align, and we can damage others. Sometimes the damage is minor, and sometimes it’s greater. When this happens, have empathy for yourself. The more you give it to yourself, the easier it is give to others. Learn, correct where possible, and move forward with relief knowing how to do better.
I previously mentioned that when I meet someone in a wheelchair I may think, “That’s horrible. Life must be so much harder for them.” In this example, my thinking and my inaction are problematic and incredibly damaging.
I have Multiple Sclerosis, and at times, I use a wheelchair. In some ways my life is harder. But life offers most of us challenges, and those challenges are as unique to each of us as our personalities are. I don’t feel horribly about having MS, but sympathetic people do treat me horribly all the time. What’s worse, their sympathy creates more than challenges for me, it creates barriers. Because when it comes time to hire me instead of someone who doesn’t use a wheelchair, sympathetic thought leads others to see my disability as a weakness rather than as a strength, and that leads others to see me as a weaker candidate. Empathy might lead the person hiring to think that while my life may have more challenges than other candidates, my challenges also mean I have more strengths than other candidates. It might seem counterintuitive, but on its own sympathy is a prejudice. When one sympathizes, they are using preconceived information to imagine how someone might be feeling or thinking or experiencing a particular situation. Sympathy is a literal pre-judgement of how you see some-one, how you think they’re feeling, or how you think they should be feeing.
Empathy is learning, accepting, and respecting how others actually feel, how they see themselves, and how they want to be seen. Empathy is achieved by taking the time to ask questions and understand things from the perspective of the person experiencing them. This is true on a small scale, and on a large one. But unlike my colleague being able to reach out to their friend and make amends, undoing the damage that sympathetic thinking causes on a larger scale is more difficult. It would be inappropriate and illegal for questions about my disability to be asked during an interview, though it wouldn’t be for a stranger to ask me questions while I’m out and about. In fact, I’m grateful whenever that happens. It’s an opportunity to break down the disability stereotypes that lead to feeling sympathy, or pity.
The idea of asking questions to others in an already uncomfortable situation may seem horrifying to many of you, but our path to understanding need not start there. Remember, sympathy is inaction, empathy is action.
We start by choosing where our own thoughts are leading us. Begin to question your own thoughts and actions surrounding other people’s struggles, and about sympathy and empathy. And begin by having empathy for yourself. Whenever you have an opportunity to ask questions, take it, and whenever you have the opportunity, do what you can to ease another’s struggle.
This is action. This is empathy.
P.J. Golden is an INCIGHT scholar. She works as a Social Justice Trainer and as an Accessibility Advocate at Portland Community College, where she’s currently continuing her education in the social sciences program.