Empathy: How We Give It Matters

Sympathy vs. Empathy

Sympathy:

1. feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else's misfortune

2. understanding between people; common feeling


Empathy:

the ability to understand and share the feelings of another


These definitions are according to Google, but there are differences between the two. They are often used interchangeably as synonyms, and in some cases can even be synonyms, but in this hub I am referring to empathy only.

Both terms involve understanding the feelings of another, but to put it the way my cousin describes it: sympathy is more cognitive and empathy is more emotional. While we can cognitively understand another's feelings, it seems that the reaction with sympathy is to feel a deep sense of pity or sorrow for another's situation itself rather than to actually feel what the other is feeling.

Sympathy is generally associated with negative feelings, whereas empathy can include joyous moments. For my purposes here, though, I am referring to the negative emotions brought on by empathizing with someone.

Empathy as defined by Merriam-Webster

1: the imaginative projection of a subjective state into an object so that the object appears to be infused with it

2: the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another or either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner; also: the capacity for this

Strength or Weakness?

Occasionally people will tell me that I would make a good counselor. I confess that I have considered that as a career choice many times, too, but then again, I also have thought that I would make a terrible counselor. Why? Because I have a knack for not completely taking on the negative emotions of another to a degree that weighs me down beyond my ability to cope. I realize that I cannot change anything by internalizing another's struggle or intense feelings as my own. It is sometimes hard enough to deal with my own negative emotions when they become intense, to remember to let them go sooner rather than later. I know that it is unhealthy to hang onto these emotions, yet it is when these feelings are most intense that I really desire the empathy of someone close.

In trying to understand these things about myself, I have come to realize that the way I empathize is actually a strength rather than a weakness. It does not mean that I care any less for a person or their feelings and struggles. It does not even mean that I do not feel the pain or sadness. It does, however, mean that I am more effective as someone that does care deeply and especially as the one empathizing. I've simply had to learn how to channel those emotions in much the same way I channel my own when they start to become overwhelming.

Empathizing Is Personal

Giving empathy is a very personal thing, perhaps even as personal as the thoughts, feelings, and experiences are to the one experiencing them first-hand. The thing is, though, that empathy is not as objective as it may seem. In fact, like most other things involved in relating to other people, it is mostly subjective in nature. We assume and we imagine what another person must be feeling according to how we might react or feel in the same situation, especially if we have been in similar situations and can easily recall our own feelings about them. We feel these things deeply, but our own feelings may be more or less intense than another's. They may not even be entirely accurate. Still, empathy is important and profound, which is why it is important to give it and receive it, but to do so without losing oneself in giving or causing another to feel burdened when receiving it.

When I wrote the poem "I Shall Do the Same" and published it as a hub I took for granted that others empathize the way that I do. But, that is simply not the case, and I guess I knew that because I wrote it after feeling as if I had become a burden to someone trying to offer empathy to me. However, when I say someone may have empathy for me, I mean in a way that equates more to strong feelings of love and/or compassion, not carrying around my perceived negative emotions for too long. I love deeply and I empathize deeply as well, but I learned to replace the tears and fear or whatever the negative emotions are with feelings more akin to deep compassion that, at times, can be quite overwhelming, too. However, these are emotions much less harmful to me and much more useful to another. I can still feel the pain of another, but have to channel that pain into something more effective. Perhaps the more effective thing to do is just to willingly accept that I can do nothing but love and tolerate not being able to do anything more.

The Way We Empathize Matters

It is hard to watch a loved one go through a storm, knowing it is not our place to control the situation even if we can. However, allowing the empathetic response to remain as internalized negative feelings is extremely impairing. It is impairing to the one empathizing as well as to the one being empathized with.

The person empathizing in this way can easily become overwhelmed with frustration and helplessness over not being able to make things better. In such instances, it is only natural to retreat for awhile or to pull way completely. One cannot blame a person for pulling away, but that is hard on the person receiving empathy, too. Knowing that someone else is experiencing such despair as a result of seeking empathy from that person is difficult. It is often even more painful than whatever the empathy is for, at least in my experience.

How is it helpful to feel like an emotionally draining leech? Or to lose a loved one over seeking comfort? Obviously, it is not in the least bit helpful. Some will take advantage of empathizers, not caring what they may be experiencing, but for those that do care, it only makes a person feel worse despite feeling cared for. It also makes a person painfully aware that opening up too much or too often may push someone away. So how does one empathize without becoming overwhelmed?

The Difference Between Feelings and Emotions

Feelings:

1. an emotional state or reaction

2. a belief, especially a vague or irrational one


Emotions:

a natural instinctive state of mind deriving from one's circumstances, mood, or relationships with others.


Someone recently told me that people do not make us feel anything; that we allow ourselves to experience those feelings. My gut reaction to that concept is to somewhat disagree with that statement, yet I think there is also much truth in it. While sometimes emotions just are what they are in the moment without explanation, it is also possible to control the way a person responds to a person or situation, including the feelings involved.

Hence, the definition of the two words listed above. They are also often used as synonyms, yet also have a subtle distinction between the two. Emotions are instinctive and may not always be controlled right away no matter how irrational they may seem. In order to change an unwanted emotional response, one must first recognize the triggers that initiate it. Feelings are the emotions we choose to focus on and they can be as intense as we allow them to be. We can and do choose them if we know how. Choosing to be happy, for instance, instead of dwelling in negative emotions past their usefulness. Choosing to let go. Or choosing to empathize. We can choose how much to feel and for how long.

If one chooses to empathize with another person, especially if the situation warrants a deeper kind of empathy, why not choose how long and when to feel those feelings related to another and why not choose to focus more on the feelings of love and compassion that come with empathizing rather than the emotions that are so heavy and hard to carry? Tears shed out of love and compassion are just as appreciated, maybe even more so. They are borne of first feeling the pain just as tears help a person to heal their own pain.

There is great value in people being able to empathize with one another, but be careful not to let it become a burden too much to carry. If empathy is meant to let someone else know they are not alone and to feel as if someone else knows and cares what is felt, then do so in a way that shares it without overwhelming either party. When an imbalance is formed, especially so that the weight feels to be more towards the empathizer, more weight is placed on both parties and the inter-empathy between two people is threatened. Perhaps even more than that can be lost.

Empathy is both a responsibility and a privilege not to be taken lightly and never to be taken for granted. Be aware of how you give it away. Being aware makes it easier to adjust if need be and to keep on exchanging empathy with those around us.

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Comments 30 comments

MartieCoetser profile image

MartieCoetser 2 years ago from South Africa

Shanmarie, I agree wholeheartedly with you. Empathy is rooted in our personal feelings about the issue and may be less or more intense than the feeling of the person who is actually dealing with the issue. Nevertheless, we should give/show it via love and compassion, but with a sense of responsibility, not overwhelming the one in need of it.

We do need empathy, as it gives us courage and strength to overcome our feelings. I remember some wide-awakenings when I did not receive the empathy I had expected from a beloved. Empathy, projected as love and compassion, is certainly one of the most powerful proofs of unselfish, supportive friendships and love-relationships. Empathy is a feeling rooted in love: we have the ability to project or suppress it. The choice is ours, and we will bear the consequences of our choice.

A friend in need, is a friend indeed. In the cemetery of my memory I have a couple of corpses - buried by me because they have forsaken me time and again when I was in need of empathy and nothing more....

Empathy, given in the form of compassion, encouragement, emotional support and even by the completion of tasks, is according to my perception an emotional tendency we also see in some animals, like dolphins, dogs, elephants, and such.....

Great, thought-provoking hub...


shanmarie profile image

shanmarie 2 years ago from Texas Author

Thanks for reading, Martie! I hope it is thought-provoking, because that is my intent. It's not fun to be wanting to seek the comfort of a beloved, trusted friend yet also being afraid to open up too much for fear of ultimately forcing that friend to back away. As much as it is desired in the heat of the moment, sometimes it almost does not seem worth the ultimate cost in the end. However, that is why I do think about empathy quite often and why I am aware of the way that I try to share it with others.

When you say in need of empathy and nothing more, it makes me think of how the urge is to offer advice or solutions to someone. Those things can be helpful and even accepted, but sometimes can seem condescending at times. So can philosophy, depending on how it is offered. And offering pity makes a person feel pitiful instead. A person might even dismiss someone's feelings with words that seem to say the feelings are unwarranted and not even mean to do so, but think she or he is being empathetic anyway. But really,sometimes when a person wants "empathy and nothing more," it is just the comfort of knowing someone cares about the intense feelings in the moment. It is also the empathy that enables those emotions to pass more quickly and that encourages the thought process of how to sort through those feelings and the issue at hand. Sometimes a person can be told things like 'I just want you to listen' and that is enough. Other times, it is more complicated and harder to explain. Me, there are times when I don't mind advice or philosophy that can most definitely be useful. But mostly, I just want someone empathizing with me to give the compassion and love, but not to be burdened by it.

It is a tricky thing to share empathy with someone, especially deep empathy.


MartieCoetser profile image

MartieCoetser 2 years ago from South Africa

I just read a hub about the so-called difference between sympathy and empathy, and for the utmost time I realized that we humans - too many of us - have a sickening tendency to confuse ourselves and others by trying to proof that good is not good and bad is not bad.... And why do we do this? But only to show off our intellect, like body builders showing off their muscles....

This hub of yours doesn't fall in the same category... And to be honest, after reading the one about empathy versus sympathy, my entire mind is twisted into a Gordian knot, so I am obliged to untwist it and to read this hub of yours again in order to register the conclusion you have instigated in my mind...., m


Ericdierker profile image

Ericdierker 2 years ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

Empathy is a strange one. Many people just do not have it. And some of us have it to a degree that interferes with normalcy. (probably ok in the long run) The biggest problem seems to be in dealing with those who cannot even get in touch with their own feelings. Interesting stuff.


shanmarie profile image

shanmarie 2 years ago from Texas Author

Hi again, Martie. I suppose that there is a difference between the two, but sympathy has its place, too. For one thing, empathy involves more personal emotions as we relate to the person the empathy is being offered to. An empathetic response can also be for joyous feelings, too, whereas sympathy is given only to someone in pain. Anyway. . . just my quick thoughts on that. What is there really to prove anyway?

I am reminded of a song by Karyn Williams. I just recently discovered her music, but more and more I like the song called "Only You." I love the idea of being made like air so that the tears, pain, and fear all just disappear. Letting go of it all just to be in God's presence. "All this time I've lived with every thing to prove. Now I can't remember who I had to prove it to. Lord, it's only you." Not to mention, her voice has quite a soothing quality to it. Here it is, if you are interested: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h60PPhZYa-o

I am curious what kinds of conclusions you have reached about what I had to say. It's the culmination of something on my heart and mind for at least a year now, yet I'm still not quite sure it all translated accurately when I tried to articulate my thoughts.


shanmarie profile image

shanmarie 2 years ago from Texas Author

Hi, Eric. I can see how someone not in touch with their own feelings is harder to deal with. As for people not having it, I think it is something we learn as we grow up. Children don't innately have the ability to do so in their younger years. As we begin to recognize the needs of others, we can either cultivate it or ignore it, even discard it altogether.


Faith Reaper profile image

Faith Reaper 2 years ago from southern USA

What a beautifully written hub here filled with your deep and profound thoughts on empathy, dear Shan. So great to see you here writing this day! I have missed you.

So true, just understanding that our friend is hurting and having compassion in our hearts to love on them in lieu of trying to fix whatever is so important. Although we may know how we would feel ourselves in a particular situation, we really have no clue as to what they are truly feeling. We just need to be mindful to be there for them no matter what, offering our love and understanding of the fact they are hurting ... and be the giver of many hugs and shedding of tears too (as you have so wisely shared).

Voted up and more and away

Blessings and love to you and yours this day


shanmarie profile image

shanmarie 2 years ago from Texas Author

Hi Faith Reaper,

Missed you, too! Been thinking of you lately as well! I heard a song that i thought you'd appreciate. I actually shared the link above with Martie if you want to listen.

It's natural to seek the comfort and understanding of others and perhaps even to give it, as we are taught to treat others as we want to be treated. But when giving empathy becomes overwhelming. . .I don't know. . .it causes me to empathize with someone empathizing with me. That's not a bad thing, but when it makes it hard to express any feelings at all either from me or the person empathizing, it also makes the relationship more complicated than need be. I know, people say it is on the other person in how that person copes or deals, but I feel guilty and responsible for discussing something bothering me or in releasing certain emotions by talking about an incident if it causes someone else to become overwhelmed. Empathy has power to heal, but not if it destroys someone else in the process or if it ruins a friendship to avoid that destruction. I just think the way in which it is offered matters for both people involved. It's a trust that is so strong and that goes both ways.

I'm glad you enjoyed this hub, though I am in the process of trying to refine it more. I've been talking to a couple of people, trying to further refine thoughts that have been on my mind for at least a year now. I want to make sure the premise I have is the one being projected in the hub. So -- it's still a work in progress, but I don't want to take it all the way down while I work more on it.


Faith Reaper profile image

Faith Reaper 2 years ago from southern USA

I meant to add that love your choice of videos here too. I will check out the one you shared with Martie too. Wow, Shan, a year's worth of thoughts is a lot to put down in one hub. You have done an excellent job of expressing yourself here in being concise with your thoughts. I am glad you are not going to take it down while you continue to work on it. Hugs


Faith Reaper profile image

Faith Reaper 2 years ago from southern USA

I just listened to Karyn Williams' "Only You" ... so beautiful. Thank you for bringing it to my attention. I was just thinking those same thoughts (as in her song) just this past night that only He knows what is in my heart when I cannot even seem to find the words to pray sometimes, and that is comforting indeed.


shanmarie profile image

shanmarie 2 years ago from Texas Author

Oh, Faith Reaper, it's always a pleasure to hear someone enjoys the choice of music, especially when many don't even bother to listen. The last one is especially personal to me. I listened to that song over and over again just before and after the fire when I was dealing with thoughts and emotions that were separate from even the fire and felt like I had no one to talk to or to share with what I was even dealing with. In my heart, I know that it does get better and I know to seek God, as only he can heal the way no one else can. But, it is a true gift when someone is to be trusted enough to share with and when that someone cares that much. To me, that song is an emotional one in which I am reminded of how I want to take the pain of others away, but cannot do that. All I can do is try to ease the pain by caring and continuing to make it known that I do.

There is another one called "Carry Me" in which I am particularly fond of: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aIN6owNxDQQ. There's a line in it about how when the morning comes all that can be heard are other voices around crying out for the same thing. It's so very true. As much as I sometimes desire someone to be of comfort in the moments I am feeling so terrible, I find it useful for me to empathize with others in return. It is also healing - for both of us.

It really is only God that knows those deepest, most personal thoughts and feelings. Humans hold many things back from one another for various reasons, but we can hold nothing back from Him even if we try.


always exploring profile image

always exploring 2 years ago from Southern Illinois

I had to learn the hard way between sympathy and empathy. When i first started in nurses training, i was in tears much of the time. My instructor sat me down and told me that i wouldn't make it if i didn't learn the differences between the two. I soon learned that she was correct. To be a nurse i had to separate myself from the patients pain and empathize only. It was difficult. Sometimes the tears would spill over no matter how hard you tried. I agree with you about negative people bringing you down. A well written hub. voted up and sharing..


shanmarie profile image

shanmarie 2 years ago from Texas Author

Thanks, Ruby! Good to see you. One of the things a couple people have suggested I add to this article is the difference between empathy and sympathy. I think that I will.

I can see how learning the difference between the two would make a difference to that profession. Sympathy has its place and can even be beneficial if used in the context of a mutual understanding between two people, but it can be even harder to deal with than empathy if felt that deeply. It also tends to come with feelings of pity that most do not want bestowed upon them for any reason.

Empathy, however, can be used to exchange feelings of joy between two individuals too - a friend excited for another's accomplishments, for instance. It's understanding and often feeling another's more negative emotions that make empathy harder. But, you learned how to use that empathy to better serve the needs of the patients.

When speaking with my cousin today about this hub, she was trying to help me better articulate some things and we had a discussion about empathy and sympathy both. She said that sympathy is more of a cognitive understanding and empathy is more of an emotional one and then asked if it made sense. Well, makes perfect sense to me, because that is part of what I need to express. It's harder to effectively help when the understanding of someone's feelings is more cognitive. Seems like more pity or general sorrow is involved for the situation as a whole rather than for the immediate feelings at hand.


Faith Reaper profile image

Faith Reaper 2 years ago from southern USA

I, too, relate to music a lot in my life as I can so identify with the words and although they may bring up a lot of emotion, it is so comforting to listen to over and over, at least I do at times. I love singing out looud while driving even, as it seems to help to get whatever out too ... if that makes any sense?

Yes, we can hide nothing from Him and I am truly comforted by that thought, as He knows and completely understands our pain, when no other can.

Thank you for sharing another video. I will listen. Now, I am off to take care of this mop on my head that I have neglected lol.

Hugs


shanmarie profile image

shanmarie 2 years ago from Texas Author

LOL. I am juggling many balls today. Taking a shower will be last on my list, but it is also relaxing to pamper ourselves - even if it has become a neglected mop on top of the head. ;)

Yes, it makes perfect sense that singing out loud does that. I do it, too! It's very cathartic and is an excellent release of tension even if the music itself is emotional. Kind of like feeling an urge to throw glass just the hear it break, as I have felt the urge to do in the past, or the kind of emotional release that tears release.


FlourishAnyway profile image

FlourishAnyway 2 years ago from USA

Some people are much more sensitive than others and thus find it easier to empathize. I think it's all about opening oneself up and establishing personal boundaries. Yet it's also important to know when someone else's feelings are theirs to deal with and experience vs. yours. It can be difficult sometimes.


shanmarie profile image

shanmarie 2 years ago from Texas Author

Very difficult, FlourishAnyway. Sometimes hard to maintain personal boundaries even because of caring, but it is very necessary. I believe a person can empathize while knowing and somewhat experiencing what another is going through without feeling more than one can personally cope with, though.


ahorseback profile image

ahorseback 2 years ago

Shan , sweety ! I'll bet you're a great listener , I seem to have a knack for people telling me their ills ! I just sit quietly and then simply try to tell them how awesome the are ! Usually without advising , that can sure backfire quickly ! Anywho , keep up the great work !........Ed


shanmarie profile image

shanmarie 2 years ago from Texas Author

How does that backfire, Ed? If people are awesome, they're awesome. Why not say so? Sometimes an ear is all that's needed!


ImKarn23 profile image

ImKarn23 2 years ago

Love this Shan.

Some are naturally more empath-ic than others. Those that are - feel deeply and hurt often.

As you know...

hugsxx


shanmarie profile image

shanmarie 2 years ago from Texas Author

Oh, Ed! Something brought me back to this hub today and I was reading comments. Just realized that what you are saying backfires is advising. I feel a bit silly now. Haha. Oh well.


shanmarie profile image

shanmarie 2 years ago from Texas Author

Thanks, Leslie. It's all about how empathy is processed, I think. Hugs back at ya.


MartieCoetser profile image

MartieCoetser 2 years ago from South Africa

I agree with you, Shanmarie.

I have seen people emphasising in such an overbearing way that they actually worsened the condition of the person in need of empathy. For example, friend #1 has lost her husband in a car accident. Go figure! Friend #2 took a week leave to be with friend #1, but totally unnecessary, as the relatives of friend #1 were at her side, taking care of all the arrangement. Friend #2 did not even realize that she was actually unwelcome and nothing but an irritation.

I have sympathy for Oscar Pistorius because he finds himself in an awful situation, but i have no empathy as I cannot comprehend shooting a person through a closed door.


shanmarie profile image

shanmarie 2 years ago from Texas Author

Hmm...I can see how that would be an irritation. It's probably best to make the offer to stay and let the other either accept or politely decline it. I don't think I would want to feel any empathy for shooting someone through a closed door either.


ahorseback profile image

ahorseback 2 years ago

Shannie , Sometimes I believe that the only honest and pure truly beautiful emotion is empathy , without the mixtures of marriage or love , without any perversion or alternative motives , without any twisting of friendships, just sitting and listening to someone AND you don't even have to know them , been there done that ! Sometimes a stranger can be more honest with a stranger than anyone . Of course there's nothing wrong at all with knowing that one you're listening to as well ! You are such a wise young woman , thank you for sharing that !...Your bud ....Ed


shanmarie profile image

shanmarie 2 years ago from Texas Author

Thanks, Ed. I don't know that i am so wise. But, I am someone that's learned the hard way the heavy price of allowing others to empathize with me, or worse me seeking too much of it. It's not to say that these people didn't mean well or did not care at all. No bitter, angry, or otherwise hard feelings. These thoughts are just lessons I've learned on how to listen and love without hurting myself or another more.

The funny thing is, whatever brought me back to this hub today was a good thing. I needed to reread my own words because I just realized that I can and should let go of the feelings of guilt. Like I said, if people choose to control their own feelings to an extent, it is not my fault that they chose to be weighted down by caring about what I was going through. And, on that note - I can also choose to not cling to sadness of hurting someone else.


ahorseback profile image

ahorseback 2 years ago

See , you are wise my dear ! A very, very good friend of mine once explained Guilt to me -- " Guilt is but interest paid on a debt that's not even ever due " , it took me awhite to figure it out , but if you understand that guilt is but a negative emotion for such a great person , as yourself . You will understand that saying . There is only so much that being human can be held against us Shannie ! I bet you ARE an awesome friend !


ahorseback profile image

ahorseback 2 years ago

Oh and as to deciding , Are you empathetic , how often does someone else's pain hurt YOU ? And we know that it does ,See what I mean , don't worry , you are !


shanmarie profile image

shanmarie 2 years ago from Texas Author

Yes, I understand that statement, Ed. Thanks.


shanmarie profile image

shanmarie 2 years ago from Texas Author

Often enough, I guess, especially when I'm empathizing with the person empathizing with me! But, that was the point of the hub, I guess. To hurt when others hurt, yet not carry it around (at least not as heavily) past the moments of expressing the empathy with them. It's just harder to do when I feel like I'm the cause of the pain, I suppose.

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