Sympathy VS Empathy

As some of you may know, I am not a huge fan of sympathy. I have received a lot of sympathy in the past and to me it just feels like the same old bullshit, the pity I received from what people said or even just how they spoke to me just frustrated me. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciated it, I really did but I didn’t want anyones pity and I didn’t want anyone to feel sorry for me but that’s how sympathy felt for me.

Naturally I received a lot of sympathy after my dads death and due to my age at the time, about 90% of the sympathy I received, were from people who were 20+ years older than me which I’m not gonna lie, did not help me much. I received all this sympathy and I just didn’t know what to do with it, I was told all of these “I am so sorry for your loss”, “No child should’ve gone through what you went through” and “If you ever need me, call me” and I just sat there, taking everyones words in but all it made me feel was frustration. I mostly replied by saying “Yeah I know” or “Thank you” because I honestly couldn’t think of anything else to say (which is personally how I feel sympathy works. To me, sympathy is when you say clichés to someone about their situation because you aren’t sure what else to say them).

During my teenage years I was a little bit more open about what was going on in my head (by this I mean, I used to get absolutely blind drunk, pour my heart out, almost drown in my tears, vomit everywhere, pass out and then wake up the next morning and completely ignore everything I had said the night before). I didn’t really have any friends who could relate to what I had been through and they hadn’t experienced what I had experienced so again, my words were met by sympathy which was reassuring in a way but it just didn’t benefit me. I always felt as though there was a sense of power when it came to sympathy, but not power on my side, power from those who were giving me sympathy. They would understand my situation but there would be little to no emotion there (aside from the usual sympathetic emotions such as pity, sadness, sorrow etc), so it sometimes felt as though they would say something along the lines of “I’m so sorry, it’s gonna be okay” but when hearing it, all I heard was “Thank fuck I’m not in her situation” or “I want to change the subject soon”. Sympathy doesn’t work for me and I feel it’s because it lacks an emotional quality which is what I use to connect with people.

Empathy is very different from sympathy; empathy is feeling emotion with people. It’s imaging yourself in their situation and you see/feel things from their perspective not your own. I’ve come across a few people in my life who showed empathy towards me and it was easier to talk to them (it was still hard to talk but I could go into detail a bit more with them). Speaking to someone who was showing me empathy, it helped me feel less alone, weird and it was comforting for me to feel as though I was talking to someone who was not only listening but was actually able to somewhat understand/relate to what I was thinking or feeling.

Empathy is very important during counselling sessions, being empathetic helps to build a connection between therapist and client as well as helping the client build trust, which in turn, will then help them to open up (which then results in more effective therapy sessions). Empathy is considered to be essential during therapy sessions, which is understandable because in order for therapy to effectively work for the client, the therapist has to make the client feel understood.

During my therapy a couple of years ago, my counsellor helped create a connection between her and I by being and showing empathy towards me which helped me to build up trust, feel safe and comfortable at all times during our therapy sessions. She did this by:
– Never interrupting me
– Not dismissing my beliefs
– Not judging me
– Speaking in a softer tone of voice
– Matching my body language
– Not talking too much
By doing these she was showing me respect and showing that she understood what I was talking about and/or how I was feeling/thinking and that is how she created a trust between us.

Naturally being empathetic isn’t easy for everyone but it is a skill you can learn and improve on. If you want to try being more empathetic you could try:
– Practise active listening. Show that you are there with them in the room, try and refrain from looking at your phone or getting distracted and let them talk whilst you listen with a compassionate ear.
– Body language. 55% of communication is through body language, by using our body language we can allow our friends to feel more comfortable around us. Use soft eye contact to help you engage in their conversation, have your shoulders squared, relax, nod your head when they express themselves and observe their body language. What are they showing you? How do you think they are feeling? What vibes can you pick up on? Try and match their body language.
– Eyebrows. Eyebrows are a key component to expressing empathy. The different ways we can move our eyebrows convey different emotions. For example, to show concern make eye contact, shift your eyebrows upwards slightly and tighten your forehead. Showing you’re concerned shows your friend that you are actively listening, you are understanding their situation or what they are thinking/feeling and that you care. You are there with them.
– Be present. Don’t try and practise how to reply to them or overthink what you think you need to say just be in the moment with them.
– Allow them to talk as much as they won’t. Sometimes it’s better for them, to stop yourself from talking too much.
– Ask questions. This again will show that you are actively listening and you want to understand more.

Empathy is yet another skill that you can learn which will benefit you (trust me, it has helped me to understand peoples behaviours and why they behave as such which has become a great observation tool) as well as benefitting those around you. I personally find being empathetic easy to do but at the same time I’m not sure I have an advantage because of the experiences I have experienced and life lessons I have already learnt but I do enjoy improving on my empathetic skills. It has helped me to understand people before they even confide in me and it has helped me become someone who people are comfortable to speak to if they want to.

I’m always here,

Sending much love to you all,

Emma xo