by Pan Vera
The primary definition in most modern dictionaries suggests that sympathy means “pity or sorrow for someone’s misfortune”. So, sympathy means taking on the sorrow, or pity for the hardships that another person encounters as your own. In this case, two people experience the same emotions. The apparent danger is in using sympathy is that unless we are careful, we shift the focus away from the other…saying (indirectly), “it’s about me”!
Empathy is putting yourself in the shoes of another to imagine oneself in the situation of another, experiencing the emotions, ideas, or opinions of that person, but not taking them on as your own. Empathy is our capacity to sense and understand what another is feeling from their – nor our – point of view. This to me is vital. The focus is on them and how they make sense of their feelings.
When I am in sympathy, I get riled up about the situation and adopt their feelings as my own. I try to fix them from my point of view, which breaks connection. Not only that, I feel exhausted and troubled myself because I took on the suffering of the other.
When I am in empathy, I understand what the other is feeling from their point of view. My attention is on them, and I focus on their feelings and needs, taking them beyond the story they are telling themselves. They are then able to find their own solutions.
One of my most successful empathy sessions involved a woman who had a strong grasp on her feelings and needs, so I said nothing for 90 minutes, while she worked out her issues on her own. At the end, while she was writing her check she said, “Pan, you are the wisest man I have met.”