Sympathy vs. Empathy

There is a video by Brene Brown which discusses the differences between sympathy and empathy. If you haven’t watched it before, I recommend it. Here is the link. Go watch it, I promise you won’t regret it.

I wanted to spend a little bit of time dissecting the words that she says in this video. We all too often use the saying “my deepest sympathies”, but do you remember a time when those words truly meant something to you? Typically, when someone has said those words to me, I have said thank you and walked away from the conversation feeling the same. I am not here to say that person did not have good intentions because I am sure they did. But there is definitely a difference between saying, “my deepest sympathies” versus “I am here for you and I care for you”. When an individual knows you care for them, they are already more likely to open up about how they are feeling.

A very common phrase used to describe “empathy” is putting yourself in their shoes. I do believe this is an important thing to do, but I also believe empathy is more than that. It’s not just putting yourself in their shoes, but putting yourself in those shoes and then hiking up the highest mountain you’ve ever walked up. It is doing your absolute best, without judgment, to understand what that person is feeling.

It is not to say we are going to completely understand each and every emotion an individual is feeling, but it’s worth a shot, right? To show you really care, you must be willing to try. In order to try, you must ask questions, be curious and care.

In her video, Brown mentions four qualities of empathy: perspective taking, staying out of judgment, recognizing emotion in other people, and communicating that emotion. To me none of those qualities sound like they are easy to do. And that is the thing with empathy, it is going to be challenging. You need to be sure before you start to feel the emotions of others, you are going to be okay mentally to take on that task. If you are not strong enough mentally, that is okay. It is important to recognize that and make sure you get the help you need and so does your friend or loved one. But if you are okay mentally and can handle it, then yes it will be difficult, but worth it.

Another quote Brown mentions in her video is, “empathy fuels connection”. According to the Oxford Learners Dictionary, fuel means, “to increase something or to make something stronger”. Empathy is quite literally making connection stronger. When an individual is able to empathize with another their connection becomes stronger. They become to feel more connected to one another and will be more willing to share the harder parts of their lives.

Truly feeling empathy is a challenging task, but one that is beautiful and one that strengthens connections between human beings.

Katie Zimmerman, Project Coordinator for The Kim Foundation

Katie Zimmerman joined The Kim Foundation in June 2019. She earned her Bachelor’s Degree in Communication Studies and Sociology from Central College in Pella, Iowa. During her time in college, she volunteered at many non-profits organizations and took multiple sociology classes which focused on mental health. Katie’s role at The Kim Foundation includes running the social media accounts, assisting in the Youth Advisory Council, and providing mental health awareness and education to the community through A Voice for Hope and Healing presentations.

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