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In defense of sympathy

Martin Lang, compassion, Creative Commons license

Sympathizing with a hurting person used to be a good thing. Now, not so much. In recent decades a contrast has been drawn between "sympathy" and "empathy," and somehow empathy was crowned the higher virtue.

It should be noted at the outset that this is a hair-splitting discussion over semantics—the meanings of "sympathy" and "empathy" overlap heavily both in dictionaries and in practical usage, and in fact what we call "empathy" today was generally called "sympathy" two hundred years ago or so. But, well-founded or not, many people contrast the terms today, and that's what I'm responding to.

When I first encountered a distinction between sympathy and empathy, it was described to me this way. When I see you suffering, and I feel bad about the fact that you are suffering and wish you felt better, that's sympathy. But when I see you suffering and I feel bad for what is happening to you as if it is happening to me, that is empathy.

In addition, when I feel bad that you are suffering, but I have never experienced what you are going through and can't really relate, that's sympathy. But when I feel bad that you are suffering because I have experienced what you are going through and have a very good idea of what you are experiencing now, that's empathy.

Fair enough. But what isn't fair or wise is that empathy has been deemed more helpful to the sufferer and more praiseworthy in the helper than sympathy. Have you noticed that counseling, self-help, and leadership books lift up empathy, not sympathy, as a quality to strive for? Have you ever had someone tell you, "I don't just sympathize with you, I empathize with you," and have you noticed that no one says it the other way around? Empathy is seen as next-level sympathy—so much so that to some people sympathy is virtually a condescending insult.

This, to me, makes no sense, for three reasons.

First, I don't think that people, as whole, empathize nearly as much as they claim to. Certain individuals do, but not most of us. If empathy is based on having very similar experiences, then for the most searing and tragic experiences, when empathy would presumably be most valuable, it is least available. For someone's house to burn down is devastating. But how many people can "empathize" with losing all their possessions in a fire?

Similarly, being a parent of a diabetic child (as I am) is a very difficult thing. But I set an impossible standard for people if I expect them to empathize with me. Likewise my son, who is diabetic, sets an impossible standard if he expects me to empathize with him. But that doesn't mean I don't love, care for, and feel sorry for his condition very much.

The point is, most of our feeling bad for others is sympathy, not empathy, and we might as well call it what it is.

Second, empathy is not more helpful than sympathy. Each has a distinct and valuable role to play to help the sufferer.

Let me tell you, I am enormously grateful for people in my life who have empathized with my struggles. When someone empathizes with me, I feel truly understood and I don't feel alone. Those are critical, priceless benefits, and I hate going through something painful without them.

That said, empathy generally provides little in the way of a helping hand out of the pit. Part of what makes empathy powerful is that the empathizer exhibits understanding of the profound darkness and difficulty of the problem. But this is generally because it is as insuperable to them as it is to you. If they did get out of their own similar jam, there often is not much they can say about how it happened.

But people who sympathize aren't in the pit and are standing in the sunshine. Some of them have a clue as to how to get out of the pit. At least they usually have perspective that is broader and wiser than the stifling, encompassing, consuming gloom the sufferer is in. When I have been in bad, bad shape, I've needed empathizers to comfort me in it, but I've often relied on sympathizers to help me out of it.

Third, to pick apart the root meanings of the words (which, semantically, can be a dicey thing to do, I admit), "sympathy" means "suffering with" and "empathy" means "suffering in." Is it always healthy, much less virtuous, to "suffer in" someone else's suffering?

If I sympathize with you—if I "suffer with" you—I can distinguish between your suffering and the echo that is what I feel when I view your suffering. There is a distinction between your feelings and mine and between you and me. But if I empathize with you—if "suffer in" you—I can't well distinguish between your suffering and mine, which means there is a blurry distinction, if any, between you and me.

This is important, because one convincing metric of emotional maturity is a person's capacity to distinguish self from others. If this is so, then maximum empathy equals minimum maturity.

Now in my view that definition of emotional maturity is considerably limited, but it does have a lot going for it. If I can't maintain the boundary between me and you, that is generally because there is no "me" there. My self doesn't have much of an existence—it is perpetually endeavoring to borrow others' selves to make up for its own emptiness. We all do a fair amount of that, but it increases dramatically in those who experienced major trauma or neglect in the families that did much to form them.

When it goes beyond a certain hazy limit, empathizing reveals not richness of love but poverty, not possession of a skill but the lack of capacity to self-regulate. If you are suffering, and I empathize, am I really feeling your pain? Is it not more true that I feel the pain of my own trauma, dredged up in memory and triggered again by your experience? There is no guilt in having been traumatized, but there is no virtue in it either. My renewed experience of my own suffering does not constitute love for you over yours. In fact, behind the shared understanding I convey to you might be my own self-absorption, of which I am unaware.

None of this means that empathy is a bad thing. It is a good thing in its proper place. It just isn't as great a thing as it is cracked up to be, and it isn't categorically better than sympathy.

In the literature of leadership theory and so-called "emotional intelligence," empathy is described as perhaps the paramount competency of an effective leader. But the empathy these thinkers are talking about actually combines three traits: perspectival flexibility (that is, seeing things from another's point of view), compassion, and the ability to communicate both to others. Come to think of it, that sounds a lot like sympathy.

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