A little while ago I was reading an article about Paul Bloom in the Guardian, and he had something interesting to say about empathy.
I thought great, but as I read I started to get irritated, not because I didn't like what he was saying, but because the journalists kept confusing empathy with sympathy.
Often when people are feeling sympathy, it gets described as empathy. Thing is they are quite different, and they do quite different things.
So what is this sympathy thing?
The word sympathy is derived from Greek. It is derived from syn which means "together" and pathos which means "feeling" It roughly translates as fellow-feeling.
For the purposes of what follows, I am not looking at sympathy from the perspective of sorrow for another's plight, rather I am looking at it as feeling in sympathy with, meaning to feel the same or similarly to another person or group.
When we feel sympathy this is what happens...
We see someone, such as a survivor, and then we imagine being in the same position. We might imagine being their parent or someone who knows them. This will often generate a strong feeling.
Except that sympathy has a trap.
Because when we are feeling sympathy, what we are really doing is imagining what the situation is like for us. Sympathy is always about what we are feeling, it never imagines what the other person might be feeling.
Sympathy leads us to assume the other person feels the same as we do.
The other day I happened to be watching a youtube video about a motorcyclist who lost control, and went over the side of the road. While it looked very dramatic he was OK apart from a few bruises and a broken arm.
My reaction to this clip was for my heart to leap into my mouth, and shout out an expletive. What I was feeling was sympathy not empathy.
The trap sympathy leads me into, is to assume the motorcyclist felt the same thing as me watching him. I know from watching the clip that he didn't. In fact he was very calm, and this isn't an unusual reaction to being in a dramatic incident.
Sympathy often leads us to make this statement
"You must have felt awful!"
Using must in this way is the assumption of same-feeling contained in sympathy. This has the effect of closing down the feelings of the other person. What we are doing is telling them they should feel a certain way, because we feel that way, which is why we are often wrong when we feel sympathy.
Also feeling lots of sympathy is exhausting! It almost invariably involves having strong emotions, which is tiring. When people talk about empathy fatigue, what they should really be talking about is sympathy fatigue.
How is empathy different?
The word empathy is based on the German, Einfühling, which means "in" + "feeling" and was originally coined by Rudolf Lutz to describe the process of projecting yourself into an object when appreciating art.
This idea of getting "in" the feeling is very characteristic of empathy. Unlike sympathy which suddenly immerses us, when we are empathising we are lowering ourselves into the feeling.
Empathy has 2 essential characteristics,
Empathy is a dual process of separation and connection. It is gentler than the strong feelings evoked by sympathy, and leads us to this question,
"I notice how I am feeling, how do you feel?"
"How are you feeling?" is a classic empathy question, used frequently by counsellors for a very good reason. It allows space for the person being empathised with to emerge. They are no longer closed down by the you must be feeling statement of sympathy, because empathy explicitly allows for difference.
Allowing for difference requires an extra step which is missing from sympathy. With sympathy there is no need to ask why a person feels a particular way, because we already 'know' the reason - it's the same as ours!
However empathy requires us to recognise that we don't know, and so we are forced to make an intuitive deduction as to why the other person feels a certain way.
When we are empathising this need for intuitive deduction helps us to keep one foot on the bank of the river, but when we are sympathising we just jump right in.
Which is how I know that Salley Vickers gets empathy and sympathy mixed up in her Paul Bloom article when she says,
There has been much research into the seeming capacity of small children to respond empathetically, but what children appear to feel is not so much empathy, when they perceive someone in distress, as sympathy. Typically, children will pat, touch, hug or offer a toy to another child or adult in distress but only rarely in this situation show signs of anguish themselves.
source Salley Vickers via The Guardian
They aren't feeling sympathy, because they aren't being immersed in the distress they can see in another. Footnote #1
Which is better empathy or sympathy?
It's obviously empathy, right?
When we are feeling sympathy, we also feel compelled to act. Charity events such as Red Nose Day, wouldn't get any where near as many donations without creating feelings of sympathy in the viewers.
However, as Paul Bloom points out, we are better at feeling sympathy for people we recognise as being like us, and secondly just because we feel strongly motivated to act, doesn't necessarily mean those actions will be moral.
For instance after a tragic event, such as a murder, we may feel strongly motivated by thoughts of revenge, retaliation, or punishment. From this perspective the current catastrophic situation in the middle east can be seen to have been driven by feelings of sympathy.
On a more everyday level, the other problem with sympathy is that it often involves strong feelings, which can be uncomfortable. Often the response in the sympathiser is to try and reduce those feelings.
This can particularly affect us when we are grieving. People will often try to cheer us up, and may say things like, "look on the bright side," "they wouldn't want you to be sad," "you need to move on." One of the most common and hurtful things is when people avoid us, usually because they are worried they won't know what to say, or they might upset us. Their sympathy only serves to increase our distress.
However empathy isn't a panacea for the problems of sympathy. It creates problems of its own.
It's slower for one thing, you have to let empathy build, and it's also uncertain and tentative for another. Empathy does not provide right answers, it only produces reasonable guesses.
Also, to feel empathy, we must allow the other person to create a feeling in us. Whenever we want to empathise we must first risk being overwhelmed by sympathy.
When Rosa discovered her daughter's boyfriend had started to date another woman 6 months after her daughter had died, Rosa experienced such intense grief and rage she sent the following to him on Facebook,
Before I thought through what I was doing, I had posted: “Don’t you think it’s a bit soon to fall in love again?” on the stream of their conversation and pressed “Done” or “Send” or whatever it is.
source Vanessa Nicholson via The Guardian
It wasn't until after Rosa had sent that message was she aware of the impact it could have on Adam, her daughter's boyfriend. Rosa's feeling of sympathy driven by "I am still grieving for my daughter," overwhelmed her ability to empathise with Adam's feelings.
And unlike the security offered by sympathy where we feel compelled to act, empathy offers no such comfort. Rosa's reconciliation with Adam is an act of choice, and it took her 8 years to make that choice.
Paul Bloom's contention about empathy is correct, feeling empathy does not mean being moral. With empathy, we must always choose how we respond.
Empathy forces us to choose whether to hurt or help.
main photo by Anemone123 via pixaby.com
Footnote #1 Empathy in children