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In Sympathy, We All Sink

In one of my favorite writings distinguishing sympathy from empathy, Guy Azoulai writes that a sympathetic response to someone’s suffering is akin to seeing someone drowning in the ocean and jumping in the water to help. Both people quickly find themselves struggling in the dangerous waters, neither of them able to help the other.

This is contrasted with empathy, which he describes as seeing someone drowning in the ocean and calling out to validate the person’s struggle. You let the person know you are there, you understand what they are going through and you will help. All the while, you keep two feet firmly planted in a helpful position on shore and offer the person a life preserver.

The prefix “sym” means to join, or to feel the same thing. Sympathy means feeling pity for someone. It might sound like, “I’m sorry,” “I feel so bad for you,” or “I know just what you’re going through.” It can feel patronizing when people pity us or try to take our experience and map it onto their own. Fittingly, the Latin root of condescension means “we all sink.”

An empathic response is different. The prefix “em” means to connect – without becoming part of. It allows you to maintain a helpful stance without feeling the same emotion. To be empathic is to suspend our own experience in the service of being fully present to the experience of another.

Responses of sympathy and empathy involve distinct patterns of brain activity. When people’s brains are scanned while listening to true stories of human distress, their feelings can be mapped onto their brain images. It turns out, patterns associated with empathic responses overlap with the same parts of the brain that light up when we practice mindfulness meditation. Empathic responses are associated with a brain that is calm, nourished and happy.

In contrast, patterns of sympathy overlap with parts of the brain associated with emotional pain and distress. It is as if the person is not only hearing about the event but actually experiencing it themselves. Sympathetic responses are associated with a brain that is suffering and quicker to become fatigued.

In the work we do with others, it is important to stay present and protect ourselves against compassion fatigue and burnout. Empathy is not only good for the people we work with – it is good for us as well.

Author: Alyssa Forcehimes, PhD

An expert in behavior change, substance use disorders and empathic communication, Dr. Alyssa Forcehimes serves as President of The Change Companies® and Train for Change Inc.® She lives in Arizona with her husband and two daughters.