Empathy is the ability to deeply understand and share in the feelings of another. This is quite different than sympathy. Sympathy is the act of showing pity or commiserating with someone else.
The two are often confused. In my personal and professional life, I am trying my best to live by the timeless adage of “treat others as you would wish to be treated.” It seems like an appropriate credence to live by, with satisfying karmic vibes.
Due to my own significant physical injuries, I’ve been on both ends of the fence in healthcare. I’ve been the provider. I’ve been the patient. So when a client (or friend) comes to me, I am making a strong effort to do three things:
- Set aside personal belief systems or biases to the best of my ability.
- Listen with my undivided attention, using all my senses. (This is the hardest one for me)
- Avoid pity or sympathy whenever possible. Seek to understand.
These traits are the very definition of empathy.
I have not mastered the art of empathetic listening by any means. My own prejudices and faulty beliefs often get the best of me. This never leads to a state of healing or deeper understanding.
As a provider and decent human being, I struggle every day to set aside my desire to “win” or “be right.” I’m slowly learning that it never brings about any long-term satisfaction. This type of stance only distances me from others. Instead, I am attempting to listen with the intention of understanding a different viewpoint. This is rewarding for both parties. It fosters trust, deepens conversations, and often leads to the growth of meaningful relationships.
Can you imagine how different our world would be if every person upped their effort to express empathy about 1-2% every day? The ripple effect would be unfathomable.
In a way, I am partially writing this post for selfish reasons. I want to remind myself the importance of listening with the intention of coming away from an interaction with a greater understanding of how another thinks or feels. This is particularly important in healing from a chronic disease or injury.
WHY IS EMPATHY IMPORTANT?
I don’t think there has ever been a time in the history of mankind where decisions are made with such swiftness and haste. This is particularly true in healthcare. Medical choices are often made according to a protocol or set of lab values and / or diagnostic criteria. This may lead to misdiagnosis or less favorable outcomes for the patient. Why? It is because without empathy, there cannot be informed consent. A client might constantly question a provider’s decision if it was not met with mutual understanding. Even sham treatments have been proven effective if the client believes the intervention will work (NCCIH). This is known as the placebo effect.
I should clarify there are obvious cases where we must sidestep empathy and make quick, educated decisions. Examples include: emergency medicine, a robbery or break-in, etc.
However, when it comes to healing from a chronic disorder or painful condition… empathy is king. This is similar to a personal struggle: most people don’t want to hear repeatedly about how bad they have it. It takes a toll on the psyche. For instance, with my own injuries, people often say to me, “Oh, but you are too young to be dealing with that,” or “Oh! How awful!” I’m never sure how to respond to those expressions.
I know comments like that are meant to be supportive, but they are not helpful in the least to anyone going through a chronic struggle. They are examples of sympathy. Unlike empathy, sympathy rarely pushes anyone into improving his or her circumstance. This may be my own personal bias, but I feel it is true in most cases.
Those examples are almost as irritating as the loaded question, “How are you?” Most people say this in passing as a social gesture. So, I struggle expressing how I am to others when I am not doing well. It’s difficult to respond to questions like that and expect empathy in return. So when you ask someone how they are doing, own it. Be prepared for anything. Be ready to respond with empathy if necessary and possible.
With all the uncertainties in life, there is one thing I am certain: We need more empathy in this world. I find this particularly true in healing. I honestly believe that the clients I have connected with on an empathetic degree tend to do better. This is a sticky area for providers, with a lot of gray lines. We often want to understand you on a deeper level, but don’t want to breach a therapist-client relationship. As a client, I’ve also noticed deeper results in my own care when I find truly empathetic practitioners.
WHY SYMPATHY DOES NOT WORK AS A SUBSTITUTE TO EMPATHY IN HEALING
Why is sympathy not an adequate replacement to empathy? Sympathy is emotionally taxing for both parties. This is particularly true for the receiver of sympathy. When a tragedy or loss occurs, sympathy has limited value. Sympathy in excessive amounts can be draining. If I lose someone close to me, I don’t want to constantly hear sympathy expressed. I want people to be there in the moment. Uplift and inspire me. It works much better.
SITUATIONS WHERE EMPATHY IS DIFFICULT TO EXPRESS
As I’ve learned recently, it is difficult to emote empathy when a large experiential or knowledge gap exists between two parties. As a middle-class Caucasian male, I’ve been privileged in many ways I cannot imagine or articulate compared to some of my peers. Try as I might to understand how difficult it is to live in poverty, or exist as with other disadvantages, I have no true basis from which to draw my conclusions. So, I am left only with questions… and my own (skewed) perception of how to approach subjects such as these. In scenarios like this, I believe it is best to seek to understand through honest reflections and questions. Yet, it is difficult to truly be empathetic in scenarios such as these. This is an area I struggle with, and hope to improve over time.
LACKING EMPATHY: THE NEGATIVE EFFECTS
- A lack of empathy leads to a dark, sullen existence. It will be challenging to connect with others on any deep level. Interactions will likely be superficial.
- Empathy goes hand-in-hand with vulnerability. The combination of the two are necessary to form loving relationships.
- Without empathy, there can be no love. Without love, there is only primal reactions.
- Without empathy, healing may be difficult or slowed.
TOO MUCH OF A GOOD THING? DOWNSIDES TO EMPATHY
Sometimes healthcare providers can appear cold and calculated, but this is not always a bad thing. Down-regulating empathy in certain scenarios is a useful tool. I mentioned the emergency situations above. Studies (Decety,. J., et al,.) have demonstrated that expressing too much empathy can be exhausting to providers.
The providers may even embody problems as their own. First and foremost, it is critical to balance your own mental reserves when expressing empathy to others. Make sure to perform self-checks on your own mental reserves before reaching out in an empathetic fashion.
EMPATHY IN YOUR PERSONAL LIFE: HOW YOU CAN EXPRESS MORE EMPATHY TO OTHERS.
I think the critical summary and take home points of this article are as follows:
- Understand the difference between empathy and sympathy. Choose empathy whenever possible.
- Set aside personal belief systems or biases to the best of your ability.
- Listen with undivided attention, using all your senses.
- Avoid pity or sympathy whenever possible. Seek to understand.
- Empathy has the potential to heal many wounds, metaphorically and physically.
- A lack of empathy will lead to superficial relationships.
I hope you enjoyed this article. The purpose of Healthy Consumer is to help those who struggle with wellness obstacles and thrive despite any circumstance. If you found this helpful, many other of our articles may help you along your health journey as well. Be sure to check out the rest of our blog.
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Decety, J, Chia-Yan Yang, Yawei Cheng. (2010). Neuroimage. Physicians down-regulate their pain empathy response: An event-related brain potential study.
National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health: Placebo Effect.
Perceiving others in pain: Experimental and clinical evidence on the role of empathy. In W. Ickes & J.Decety (eds.),The Social Neuroscience of Empathy (pp. 153-165). Massachusetts: The MIT Press.