Empathy is not sympathy

Posts on this blog often point out the importance of empathy in the coping process. When you’re stressed and upset, you struggle to find ways to deal with emotions like fear, anxiety, guilt, grief, jealousy, and others that seem to rob you of stability in your life. At this point in the coping process, you think it’s all about you, that you are the primary ingredient in your life recipe. Unfortunately, this self-centered emphasis makes coping difficult.

When you get outside of yourself and bring others into the picture, the coping picture brightens. Whether you reach out to others with problems similar to yours, or work at trying to understand the effect you are having on others, substituting an “other-oriented” – rather than “self-oriented” – focus will provide insight into your problem. This focus is what we mean by empathy.

When most people think of empathy, they think of sympathy. If you can understand how another person is feeling, you are more likely to feel sympathy toward them, and this feeling motivates you to help them. Maybe so, but in a coping context, empathy has a much broader meaning than feeling sorry for someone. When you use empathy to cope, you are acting with moral strength.

Suppose you’re 17 and being bullied by a kid in high school. Generally, you do all you can to avoid this kid and stay out of the way of her wrath. Problem is, avoidance strategies don’t work because they’re a form of denial. Successful coping requires acceptance of challenges facing you.

You talk to your folks and other adults about the situation and begin to form some possible explanations for why she’s bothering you. You ask around, seeing if you can get a feel for her family life, grades, anything that will help you figure out what she’s angry about and why she’s displacing that anger onto you.

All these actions form what we mean by empathy. You’re not looking to feel pity for her; you’re looking to understand her so you can stand up to her in the context of her issues, not in the context of your fear of her. Do you get it? Effective coping requires you to focus your actions around your values and your conscience, and to convey your moral principles to the oppressor.

A lot for a 17-year old? Of course, but we’re trying to illustrate the true dynamics of empathy. So, the bully comes up to you, pushes you and says, “Look, b***h, get out of my way or I’ll beat the s**t out of you!”

You respond, “Look, I get it that you’re angry at something or someone, but you have no right to take it out on me. Keep it up and I’ll file a complaint and I’ll win. But I’d rather talk about it and find how you can point your anger at who deserves it. But not at me. No more!”

The absence of empathy is denial. Empathy can be used to generate acceptance of what is going on, and assertiveness of what you can do about it. Then you can give the bully a choice because you have made yours. You have used empathy to produce acceptance, understanding, and a plan of action. Sympathy has nothing to do with it.

At the outset of WWII, as Hitler began to unleash his war machine in Europe, England’s Prime Minister Churchill argued with his senior government advisors about strategy: conciliation or prepare for war. Churchill had already shown empathy toward Hitler – that is, observed and analyzed him. He decided the German leader was a power-hungry sadist who would stop at nothing to attain world domination, and Great Britain had no choice but to prepare its defenses from an inevitable attack by Hitler. Churchill felt no sympathy for Hitler; instead, his empathetic analysis showed him that Hitler must be exterminated. Empathy, not sympathy, allowed Churchill to prepare his country.


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