Misunderstandings of Empathy


By Christel Broederlow

Empathy is often mistaken for sympathy. Having empathy is not having sympathy for another. To sympathize is to feel for another’s situation. (For example, it involves a concern of sadness or helplessness in watching another suffer. You might hear, “I couldn’t help her and I felt so sad.”) The sympathizer often may not know what to say or confuses the situation more by unintentionally saying the wrong thing.

A sympathizer may have difficulty comforting another for one feels uncomfortable just thinking of it. They may not understand where the person is coming from, let alone going. It is a different form of understanding than empathy. In death, one often says, “I sympathize with you”,” I am sad for you”, or “I am sorry for your loss”. (There is nothing wrong with this form of understanding.)

On the other hand, in flowing empathy an empath feels, to some degree, what the other is going through as though it were the empath’s own true feelings. An empath may know what to say and do so comfortably with affection, compassion, warmth and understanding.

In true empathy, an empath will share the other’s experience without judgment, bias or harsh, thoughtless words. It’s as though they experienced the same situation and have walked in the other’s shoes. Many people believe they are empathic when, in actual fact, they are sympathetic and vice-versa.

Copyright © 1998 Christel Broederlow

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