Many erroneously believe that the terms sympathy and empathy are synonymous. Although both words have to do with feelings, they do express different grades of feelings. But before I go in to the details of explaining the differences, let’s look first at what the dictionary says.
Sympathy means feeling pity and sorrow for someone’s misfortune. Example: they had great pity for the flood victims. Sympathy can also be a formal expression of feelings, such as: Mark’s friends joined in sending their sympathies to his widow Jane. Another meaning for sympathy is the understanding between people, a common feeling, as in: the special sympathy between the two girls is obvious to everyone. Or, it can mean support in the form of shared feelings or opinions, as in: his sympathies lay with the other party. Sympathy can also mean to be in agreement with or to approve an opinion or aim, a favorable attitude, example: I have some sympathy for her point of view. Yet another meaning is relating harmoniously to something else, as in: repairs had to be in sympathy with the original structure. Sympathy can also be the state of fact of responding in a way similar or corresponding to an action elsewhere, as in: the magnetic field oscillates in sympathy.
Now let’s look at the word empathy. In this same dictionary where I found all the above, I found just one sentence to explain the word empathy, which was: the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. I was disappointed. I found this definition rather skinny so I searched further and here’s what I found: empathy is not to be confused with pity, sympathy or compassion. Then it said: empathy from the Greek to suffer is commonly defined as one’s ability to recognize, perceive and directly feel the emotion of another. As the states of mind, beliefs, and desires of others are intertwined with their emotions, one with empathy for another may often be able to more effectively define another’s mode of thought and mood. Empathy is often characterized as the ability to experience the outlook or emotions of another being within oneself, a sort of emotional resonance. This next definition I found to be quite accurate: Empathy involves the inner experience of sharing in and comprehending the momentary psychological state of another person.
So you see there is quite a difference in the two emotions of sympathy and empathy and I shall delve deeper into the meaning of both and why it is so much more desirable to develop the feeling of empathy in one and all regardless of age, gender or status in life.
About fifteen years ago I wrote my first book, which was about ‘change and self-transformation.’ This book was meant to help readers who found themselves on a cross road in their lives, experiencing change on many levels, physically, emotionally, mentally or financially. In this book, I mention the three levels of the human body structure, the physical, the emotional and the mental bodies and then I mention the Inner Self. Basically, my book is about recognizing negative versus positive feelings so one can begin the transformation process. At the back of my book I had a list of negative feelings and of positive feelings, and suggestions on how to minimize the negative character traits and to focus on developing and cultivating the positive traits and guess what? I have sympathy listed as a negative feeling and empathy as a positive feeling. Sympathy is listed as a negative feeling, simply because it comes from a lower emotional center, i.e. the solar plexus and the feeling of empathy comes from a much higher feeling center, the heart. This has nothing to do with right or wrong, good or bad, but very much to do with the evolution process of the individual.
Let me clarify one thing though which is, no matter where we find ourselves on the evolution ladder, it is perfectly OK, there is no such thing as better or worse, and as we know nothing works on a linear level in life, we are all constantly zigzagging along in all directions, experiencing life battling with the evolution process consciously or unconsciously, and as we do this, and according to how much effort we invest and how conscious we are, we progress slowly or evolve in quantum leaps. The more we evolve, the more aware we are of this fact. What is interesting to know is that we, humanity as a whole, are presently experiencing collective progress in consciousness. We are moving forward in quantum leaps not only in technology and general knowledge but also in our human consciousness. Proof of this is all around us if we care to look and listen. Every individual, every group, every enterprise who is working towards serving mankind, the world and mother earth, all over the world, is involved and committed to this process.
Why is it so important to develop this virtue, the quality of empathy? I believe in our day and age, when wars and violence are raging and rampant all around us, not only between nations but also in businesses, in institutions, in politics, in schools, in social groups and in families, it is imperative and would be of a great advantage if we begin to look at this and to understand how empathy can change the life of a person and of everyone this person comes in contact with. I daresay that an empathetic person enjoys a much higher quality of life on every level, simply because with empathy an individual is more centered, calm, patient, fair, has an in-depth understanding of what another person is going through, is non judgmental, not afraid of responsibility or commitment, gives without expecting a return, is willing to share and has no desire to hurt anyone or to gain anything for selfish needs at anyone else’s expense.
Research was made on the relationships between the use of certain practices in child rearing and the development of the feeling of empathy in children. It was found that preschool children, whose mothers were responsive, non-authoritarian and patient, had higher levels of affective and cognitive empathy. Teaching children at a very young age the importance of sharing and of being kind to other children promotes feelings of empathy. When a child who has hurt another, is given an explanation as to why this unkind behavior is harmful and is given suggestions to make amends, this child grows to develop the feeling of having empathy. The same is the case when parents encourage their children to talk about their feelings and about their problems. Physical punishment and threats to the child by parent or teacher are counter-productive. Bribing or giving the child a reward for good behavior is also counter-productive. Inconsistency in parents’ reactions to a child’s emotional needs, rejection or withdrawal of the parent blocks the development of empathy in the child. It was also discovered that children from broken homes, or in which fathers physically abuse their mothers have low levels of empathy. Parental modeling of empathetic, caring behavior plus pointing out to children that they have the power to make others happy by being kind and generous to others helps to develop the quality of empathy in children.
Research has also been made in regard to gender and empathy and apparently, females of all ages exhibit higher levels of empathy than males. The works of some researchers indicate, however, that empathetic modeling and training has potential for reducing the gap between the empathy levels of boys/men and girls/women. Research has also been made on how age influences the quality of empathy and it was discovered that adults usually exhibit greater degrees of empathy and understanding than children and older children more than younger ones. This is logical because it has to do in many cases with life experience.
Further research indicates that learners who are successful in their learning process are empathetic, meaning they are self determined, creative, knowledgeable, critical in the positive sense, i.e. curious to ask questions if something does not make sense to them. They are self-motivated and confident in acquiring the tools and strategies to acquire and apply knowledge. Learners with the qualities of empathy have insight into the feelings and behavior of others and the ability to understand and communicate.
Sympathy focuses on feeling sorry for the person who is suffering because of bad news without really having any understanding or feeling with the peson in pain, whereas empathy focuses on experiencing and sharing the pain of the person with full understanding of the feelings, even tuning in to the inner world of the person in pain. The person listening to a speaker with empathy usually comprehends more than the one who only feels sympathy because the person with empathy is self confident and is not dulled or motored by strong emotional reactions, is detached and can see the whole picture more clearly using both the head and the heart aspect. A person with empathy is not prejudiced, is able to communicate openly and meanngfully with others and values the sharing of experiences with diverse people of all backgrounds, colors and cultures, thereby widening and enriching his or her own horizon.
In conclusion it is obvious that it is much more desirable to acquire and to cultivate the feeling of empathy. The question is, can this be done and the answer is, YES it can be done. We should begin to do this in schools, it is never too early to begin. Character building should be included in every curriculum in schools and then in universties and in all adult training institutions. Training youngsters to cultivate the virtue of empathy should be a part of the curriculum from kindergarden, and to continue on every level. In adulthood it should be taught in training programs in every field on every level. What the world needs badly today are leaders, politicians, teachers, employers, entrepreneurs, parents, workers, employees, students, children, people who feel empathy. Only then can our world become a better place to live in. Cultivating and practicing empathy could erase many negative feelings such as greed, corruption, fear, hate, jealousy, resentments, guilt, and other destructive characteristics simply because you cannot develop the character quality of empathy without giving up all these negative feelings. The more we can minimize these negative feelings the more there is room for empathy.
Here are some hints on how to develop the feelings of empathy. You can begin immediately and you will be surprised how soon you and the quality of your life will change for the better.
• Focus on the self and the feelings you have. Analyse and understand your own feelings and behavior patterns. Feelings of fear, resentments, joy, etc. You’ll probably find much that you will not be proud of. No matter, take note and keep on facing yourself with all the good and the bad. This should help you to cultivate tolerance and you will be less harsh and judgmental with others when you meet with their weaknesses.
• Next you focus on how similar your feelings are with other people’s feelings. Notice how much alike you are with all these feelings regardless of gender, race or background. We all have fears, harbor resentments, are insecure in one area or another, are angry with someone, and we all have more or less the same wishes too, to do better and to move on in life. As you take notice and make the comparisons you will automatically have more understanding for everyone you deal with. With better understanding your relationships and communication will improve.
• Make a point to see other people’s perspective by reading about other people’s lives, or watching movies, documentaries or life stories. Live a day with an invalid to understand what it means to be blind or paralyzed. Put yourself in your child’s shoes for a day to see life from your child’s point of view. Imagine yourself in the other person’s place this will enhance your feeling of empathy. Show genuine curiosity and interest, be involved. This will widen your understanding of human behavior.
• Exposure to the suffering of others, their feelings, their pain helps in the development of the quality of empathy. Exposure to other cultures, beliefs, customs, promotes more understanding, flexibility and open mindedness which are the characteristics of empathy. Often people don’t watch the news, too much bad news they say. but if you cut yourself off from what is going on in the world you lose touch with reality. When you see the homeless on the streets, look at them, see them, imagine what it would be like if you were the one out there. How would you feel ?
• Encourage interpersonal relationships with schoolmates, family, friends, neighbors and work colleagues. Look at the salesman in the eye, connect with the cab driver for a few minutes. Be polite and kind with family, neighbors and friends. Encourage team work and group activities wherever possible on every level. It is through being and interacting with other people that one learns to be tolerant of the diversity in character and background. One learns patience, one learns to share, to be less self centered and less selfish. The more open you are, the more receptive and the more exposure you have to different situations and structures the more empathy you will develop.
The more empathy a person has, the higher the level of integrity. People with empathy are attractive and charismatic because they are genuine people and they excude love. Good examples that come to mind are Ghandi and Vivekananda who were both highly evolved beings. I am sure you can think of more examples just by observing ordinary people around you as you go on your daily life. The more effort you make to develop your own level of empathy the better person you will be in your private as well as in your professional life and the more you will attract people to you who cultivate the same feelings. It is very well possible to integrate the quality of empathy into the business world and to be highly efficient and professional at the same time. email coach for personal sessions at
Margo Kirtikar Ph.D. Coach/Speaker/Author is born and raised in Baghdad, Iraq of both Indian and Syrian parents. Educated in French, British and American schools, in addition to many business degrees, she earned her doctorate in the philosophy of Metaphysics in the US. An entrepreneur by nature, after 20 years of being active in the business field, in Europe and the US, she decided to focus on helping, guiding and coaching people in the art of life, self development, and spiritual growth. She currently lives near Geneva in Switzerland. Margo has three daughters and two grandsons. Her belief is that self-improvement is why we are here. Ideally we should be a few levels higher on the evolution ladder when we leave than when we arrived into this world.
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