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Sympathetic VS. Empathetic

wooden blocks that spell out the word 'sympathy'. The block with 'y' on it has an 'e' on the top face of the block

Over the years, I have heard many people refer to sympathy and empathy as being the same thing. I have been there myself, don't get me wrong, and it is only recently that I have come to the realisation that they actually mean two completely different things. In this post, I am hoping to aim to debunk anything you may have previously heard regarding sympathy and empathy; as well as talk to you about what the two actually mean.

If you look in the Oxford Dictionary, it defines sympathy as 'the feeling of being sorry for someone'. On another note, it defines empathy as being 'the ability to understand another person's feelings, experiences, etc.'. If you are still confused, let me explain further.

If you sympathise with someone, this means that you have more than likely not previously or currently experienced whatever it is they are going through, and whilst you cannot understand their feelings, you can at least be sensitive towards their feelings. However, if you empathise with someone, this means that you have previously and/or are currently experiencing whatever it is they are going through and completely understand where they are coming from regarding their feelings. Still confused? Let me give you an example.

Imagine one of your friends comes to you and tells you they have been experiencing some social anxiety recently. They tell you that the very thought of having to leave their house and talk to other people fills them with so much dread and causes them to sweat and have trouble with their breathing. You have never experienced anything like this before and cannot even being to imagine what it is they must be going through or how they must really be feeling. Yes, they have told you these things, but as you have never experienced them yourself, you cannot understand what this must be/feel like. You tell them that whilst you do not fully understand what it is they are going through, that you will be there for them and offer them all the support they may need. You tell them that you will always be there to lend them an ear should they need somebody to talk to about their social anxiety. This is sympathy.

Alternatively, imagine one of your friends tells you that one of their grandparents has recently passed away. They tell you that even though they knew that due to their health it was going to happen sometime soon, it was still a massive shock to them and that they don't know how to deal with their emotions. You went through the same thing a couple of years ago, when one of your grandparents died in similar circumstances to your friend's and therefore you can completely understand what it is they are going through. You tell them this and offer them some advice on ways you dealt with your emotions after the sad passing of your grandparent, in the hope that they too find this advice helpful. This is empathy.

I believe it is really important that we try and distinguish between sympathy and empathy more often. I repeatedly see too many people claiming to empathise with someone, despite them never having gone through whatever it is that person is going through. You can assume that you understand something, but until you have actually gone through that thing yourself, you can't have any understanding at all. You can think that you do, but you don't. Not really. There's nothing wrong with wanting to empathise with someone, but in cases where you haven't been through what they're going through, you can only sympathise with them; which is still a really good trait to have. Just don't pretend to understand exactly what they're going through when you don't, because I have been in that situation many times and it really feels like that person is being insincere, no matter how genuine they think they are being. Just remember that the next time someone confides in you about something and you are unsure about whether you mean to sympathise or empathise with them.

Love Beth xx

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