Sympathy or Empathy?

There is often much confusion about offering sympathy or empathy. What is the difference? Which is appropriate, and when?

When I was at Unity School (now Unity Institute) taking a spiritual counseling class, our teacher, Dr. Robert Brumet, gave an impactful visual demonstration of the difference between sympathy and empathy. He approached one student and said, “Oh, you have a pen! Can I hold it?” The student handed him the pen. “This is a pen? How wonderful! Do you like it? Does it write well? Thanks for sharing with me!” Dr. Brumet then proceeded to walk away from the student—carrying the student’s pen!

“That’s sympathy,” he told us.

Then he walked up to another student and asked to see that student’s pen. He looked at the pen, turned it side to side, nodded understandingly, and handed it back to the student before walking away.

“That is empathy.”

This demonstrated that sympathy is taking on someone else’s problem as our own, carrying it with us, trying to solve it, worrying about it or taking control of it. It can disempower the rightful owner of the problem, taking away the learning opportunity inherent in every challenge.

Dr. Brumet’s demonstration defined empathy as understanding another person’s problem, seeing it for what it is, allowing them to resolve it as they deem necessary, and empowering them through our belief in their own competency.

When my husband and I first began processing together, he taught me the concept of “holding the space”. Holding the space simply means being a compassionate but neutral listener, open to guidance that might support the speaker. Is this not what therapy is in essence?  If he shared his process with me, and I walked away with it as my own, how would that help either of us?

In our work towards emotional healing, carrying around another person’s pain adds the pain of one person too many! We have our own work to do! While we can understand and support others, we do not have to solve their problems. What a relief!

2 thoughts on “Sympathy or Empathy?

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