Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Sympathy or empathy

In the course I have just finished on developmental psychology, there was a discussion about sympathy and empathy. The text book and lectures were at odds about which was more useful in a societal construct. The text book suggested that sympathy was better, producing discomfort upon hearing of injustice, while empathy caused the feeling of distress, which immobilised the person. The lectures sort of implied the reverse. My instinctive definition agrees with the text book. Sympathy is feeling because, empathy is feeling as if. I suspect I am hopelessly empathic. I read the last chapter on death, and cried and cried. I heard the news today about the man who died trying (and failing) to save his two sons from drowning, and I cried. I don't think I am very sympathetic. If I can't put me there, I'm not so useful. But if I can put me there - I am way too good at that. So I suck at being helpful, which is definitely not what I want. I don't know how to scale down the empathic response to be able to cope with the sympathetic. If anyone has any good suggestions, I'm all ears.


  1. I don't know if I can be much help, because i suspect I am more of an empath too. That story you referred to had me welling up as well, and I even cried watching WALLE. I suspect some professions help you be more sympathetic rather than empathetic - aid workers, emergency department nurses and doctors. Somehow i think you have to be quite stoic, and pragmatic to be able to get on with the job of helping someone in a life saving situation. Then again empathy may be of more use in counselling, and well just being a friend. Intersting, stuff!

  2. I think the answer is "it depends". If a wave wipes out thousands of people, sympathy will induce people to give money and then go to the pub. Empathic people give money and then continue to feel crappy.
    However in the case of injustice having the empathy to live in the other person's shoes, promotes understanding. If you try to understand you might think beyond the symptom to the cause. Once you understand the cause, then you can be paralyised by the indifference of the world.


  3. We learnt this in Social Work as well. We learnt that empathy is useful tool when dealing with individuals. It enables you to put yourself in their shoes to see what it is they are going through to create understanding and being able to see what they need. Sympathy is like what Adam says, more to do with societies´s response. When dealing with an individual, sypathy will usually come across as patronising.

    It sounds like your studies are interesting. I loved developmental psychology, all those years ago.