The difference between sympathy and empathy is like the difference between knowledge and understanding. The two words are very similar but leave a gap between them that may be significant.
Sympathy seems to focus on concern for another, to know they are in pain and to express care in their time of trouble.
Empathy happens on a deeper, more personal level. Empathy is the experience of understanding how another feels because you have felt that way. Maybe your friend’s dog dies and you remember how you felt when your dog died. You have empathy; you feel with them. Or, as the kids would say, “I feel you, bro.”
Some people have a great deal of difficulty with this idea of feeling others’ feelings. You might even say they have an unreasonable inability to see another’s point of view. Their focus on self is so complete that they block out the other’s needs.
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Coupling requires empathy. Understanding anchors almost every interaction. If we don’t have some perspective on ourselves and on our partner’s needs and wants, then our selfishness will block basic togetherness. And that’s our basic need and want -- togetherness. Togetherness fueled by understanding.
But we have a real problem in our culture with feelings. We don’t even know the language. Our wounded feeling function leads to emptiness, addiction and blame. Men are especially socialized to not have feelings. Anger seems to be the only one that is acceptable.
Empathy allows us to say, “If you’re going through it, I’m with you.”
Lack of empathy, or lack of feelings, blocks this closeness. If your other is going through something that you don’t understand, then it is difficult to help.
Not only is it difficult to help, but you might block it. You might feel a vague discomfort and your best response is to minimize the problem: “That’s not a big deal; you’re OK.” Or, “It’s nothing; you’ll get over it.” And your partner is not validated. They feel misunderstood, separate and abandoned.
Or, we might offer a platitude: “Here, do this.” These statements lacking empathy only cause more pain. But if you’ve been there, then you’ve tried all the solutions. You know this just hurts. Empathy allows you to be present.
And now we are getting to real intimacy. How can you let your partner know you understand? We want to be together. Otherwise, distance and misunderstanding separate and all we can say is, “I’m sorry.” That’s pretty thin commentary on a so-called intimate relationship.
We have to feel our own feelings, work through our own pains and disappointments. We have to acknowledge our own suffering and powerlessness. Awareness of ourselves clarifies the well water so that we can offer a cool, refreshing drink to our partner. And that won’t be perfect, but it will be real.
Bruce Conn is a licensed marriage and family therapist, and works with individuals and couples. Contact him at Bruce@BruceConn.com or call 478-742-1464.