Empathy and sympathy: the line and why

How much do we know about empathy? Aren’t we unconsciously sympathising others by feeling pity towards them? Unfortunately, that’s just sympathy, not empathy. Because empathy is not a feeling, it’s an ability.

Empathy picture

Empathy, for a mere word, embodies such a powerful manifestation that shows the unique human-kind was gifted. It enables us to not only share food when in need, but also offer someone’s favourite food when they are feeling unwell. It also lets us to love other animals without expecting reciprocation as well as someone who we hate. We sometimes call it sympathy. We sacrifice with sympathy. We share food, take time to help others, and feel sad for those in despair. However, they are two different concepts. Empathy, defined in Oxford English Dictionary, is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. Sympathy, in contrast, is feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else’s misfortune. Yes, there’s a clear difference. Empathy is the ability and sympathy is the feeling.

Empathy is certainly not a feeling we have for someone. It’s the capability to see others or, to be precise, see with others. It’s not just the difference of labelling because we also behave differently according to how we define whatever it is. I wouldn’t say which is right and which is wrong because that would be disregarding the importance of either one. And that is simply untrue as our society demands both empathy and sympathy. Nonetheless, it matters to differentiate the two.

While being sympathetic is commonly associated with being kind or nice, I believe being empathetic has not much to do with neither of those warm qualities. Maybe a little but not significant enough. When I see someone through empathy glasses, it gives a sort of reflection of my own vulnerability through which I am able to connect. Then I imagine the sensations I probably had at the moment, be it the moment of pain or joy. Overall, it’s far closer to the form of self-pity than sympathy.

It’s easy to get confused to distinguish sympathy and empathy. That’s because first, they are very abstract. Can you easily describe what you are feeling right now without using the umbrella terms such as sad, happy, disgust, etc.? It’s hard to describe the feeling and whatever you say it might be emotionally biased. Secondly and most importantly, the society doesn’t emphasise enough on its role and its impact. It seems everybody agrees that being kind equals being sympathetic which tends to deny acceptance of the situation. One day, I came across an event involving transnational adoptees and it was looking for volunteers for the activities mainly translation/interpretation. I was sure that my qualifications of time flexibility, language skills, and self-evaluated emotional maturity fitted well enough and I knew these are what they were looking for. Whenever I say I volunteered for something, people tend to misunderstand like I just told them I died for them. I didn’t do it out of kindness nor social obligation. I did it because I thought I could do the good job and make things better (mind you that I’m not ashamed to say this!). Plus, to be brutally honest, it was the intellectual curiosity that attracted me as well. The common sources of acquiring information are reading books, news or articles, having friends or someone who knows about the topic, or from the media. Yet unfortunately, I didn’t come across on any of those sources regarding the perspectives of adoptees. One of my biggest interests being social integration of individuals, not specifically minority groups, I thought it would be such a great opportunity to at least see their perspective considering the fact that they as a group tend to be viewed in certain ways by members of society.

During the orientation/interview, two organisation staff who identified themselves as adoptees asked applicants why we decided to volunteer for the programme. Many of the answers were something I didn’t expect. I can often times be snobberish and think, “of course they say this, what do you expect?” Surprising to my general distrust in people, I was surprised. They were telling the staff how they feel bad about adoptees and they want to help them because they’re poor. I certainly thought that was rude because it looked like they were patronising the whole group. I was awkwardly eyeing those staff members to see whether they were hurt by those senseless comments. But I failed to see the change of their emotion. My turn came and I said I don’t necessarily feel sorry for them as they must be living their lives their own way and I want to assist the event. Something like that. But it turned out later that they actually thought I was the weird one. Ah well, I must have sounded like a sociopath. Just gotta keep my thought in my head sometimes! Anyhow, that’s when I realised that the whole shockingly rude comments happened because we are confused of the definition, sympathy and empathy.

Since age 9 or so, I’ve been sort of training myself not to dare and sympathise other people. It was such a young age that I realised I could hurt someone by giving words of pity. I was in one of my closest friends’ house with several other friends. She was living only with her father and I never saw her mother. She was in the kitchen to get something to eat and I was in a room with another friend. I don’t remember who started the conversation but there was “I feel sorry for her for not living with a mother,” kind of conversation going on. She came back from the kitchen and she yelled at us saying we should not feel sorry for her. She was upset that we treated her “differently”. She was “normal” but we treated her “not normal” and gave her pity which we wouldn’t to a “normal” friends. She refused our pity. She probably was “normal” or probably didn’t want to be treated “not normal” whether she was or wasn’t.

We children got over it as quickly as several minutes. But I never forgot how much I think I hurt her. I didn’t know the word “empathy” nor “sympathy” back then, but I knew that it wasn’t my place to feel sorry for others. Only they can do it to themselves and my role is just to treat “normal”. It wasn’t until after a very long transitional period to finally learn what is sympathy and how to deal with it.

Kids have many problems, quantity-wise. When some of their friends cries, other kids go and try to comfort them. I knew the “go” part. I always went to my friends when they were crying. But I didn’t know the “comfort” part. On top of my head, I knew I was supposed to say “I know how you feel, you’re gonna be fine,” like others do. I knew those were the popular choices of words among children but I didn’t want to say any of them because I knew it didn’t work for me. Unfortunately I couldn’t find alternatives to those empty words, so I used to just stand there awkwardly and make a sad face. I actually did feel sorry for myself for being awkward at connecting with others when they are unhappy. True story.

Much later on, a few month ago to be exact, I was talking with a white American male friend(it wasn’t an unnecessary factor I believe) while the Ferguson case was a popular topic of interest. He said he doesn’t understand why black people resist to police in the first place(he didn’t mean this in racism way in the context, so don’t get it wrong). I thought maybe defence mechanism has developed in different ways between white and black or more likely, well-off and poor? Because I read an article about somewhat related to this which I thought could be a contributing factor to arrests besides the unfair treatment. So I told him you might see a totally different landscape from the view of social minority or others who experienced social marginalisation. That would require the power of imagination for a white American male who’s on top of the food chain and who hasn’t interacted deeply enough with different social groups. But I’m sure everybody on earth has at least once gone through something tough that their ability solely couldn’t solve. So I asked him if he were ever troubled or victimised by higher authority or some kind. He said yes. Unfortunately our conversation had to end there because after all we were at the baseball stadium watching a game.

Growing up, we are taught what to do and how to do. But what about how to feel? In fact, guiding how to behave is not different from guiding how to feel. If anything, how to feel should come first, in my opinion. However, we don’t talk much about feelings but doings. Feeling is something that’s learned by different experiences and explorations. Yet talking about how we feel is in reality considered the sign of vulnerability which is also considered being weak. If sharing how we feel is taught unbrave and weak, how do we develop our feelings to maturity and diversity, other than have them restrained inside the limited expressional boundaries.

One doesn’t need to be in the same shoe to know how someone feels. I don’t have to be a gay to stand up for gay rights and I don’t have a friend of someone to know what they’re going through. Of course the huge part will be missing I won’t understand many of their struggles. What we do is empathising by reflecting our experiences. It’s a great tool if the proper perspective is given. Society needs empathy and we do, too. When I’m in despair, I need someone to connect with me instead of reminding me of my situation over and over again, like a great spectator.

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