Empathy Vs. Sympathy

The topic of empathy comes up a lot in couples counseling. Sometimes when our partner is having a hard time, we want nothing more than to help him or her feel better. this is a natural, loving thing to want, but sometimes we go about it the wrong way. There is a difference between being supportive and available to your partner, and simply trying to cheer him/her up. I would say that in at least 70 percent of the couples I have worked with, one partner presented with the complaint that the other partner always tries to “fix things” rather than being present and supportive. When someone is having difficulty in life and you try to “fix things”, the person you’re trying to help may end up feeling unheard, misunderstood, and unsupported.

The following clip contrasts empathy and sympathy. Sympathy is the act of feeling bad about another person’s suffering. In contrast, when we express empathy we are saying that we have an idea of what the other person might be feeling, we know those feelings are hard, and we are there to help. The importance of this difference has to do with attachment. When we are children, one of the things we need from out caretakers, in addition to shelter, food, and protection, is accurate empathy and validation of our emotions. Receiving healthy, accurate empathy as a child teaches us that our emotions are not to be feared, that we are supported, and others can understand our emotions and respond in a healthy way. As adults, receiving empathy communicates these same things; that you are understood, loved, and cared for. In contrast, trying to fix your partner’s problems in the absence of empathy can make him/her feel unheard, alone, and unsupported.

Sometimes its best to say something like “That Sucks!”

Joe Borders, MFT
Counseling and Therapy in Roseville and Sacramento
(530) 448-6602

1722 Professional Drive,
Sacramento, CA 95825
775 Sunrise Ave., suite 110
Roseville, Ca 95661
More about counseling and therapy with me

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