We often use sympathy and empathy interchangeably, but they represent distinct emotional connections.
Sometimes we talk about sympathy as a lesser version of empathy. But this isn’t the case. Sympathy and empathy are two different forms of connection both vital to our wellbeing in different ways.
Sympathy is a feeling of relation to someone else’s experience.
When we see a friend going through a hard time, we relate to their experience. We’ve gone through hard times: frustrations, anxieties, and uncertainties are all part of our experience as humans. As a result, there are components of frustration, generally, that we can all relate to. When see a friend who is frustrated with a situation in their life, we understand what frustration feels like to us; this allows us to sympathize with them.
Feelings are subjective – they exist for us and us alone. Our frustration isn’t the same as someone else’s frustration. But there is a functional definition of frustration that captures the general human experience of frustration – this is, of course, how we manage to label these multifaceted and complex emotions as simply frustration.
This doesn’t mean that sympathy is less than – it isn’t. Sympathy is foundational to all human connection. It’s the thing that allows us to connect with the stranger we pass on the way to work every morning, the barista at your local coffee shop, or make meaningful small-talk at the grocery store check-out line. These daily interconnections are a vital part of our wellbeing just like the deep relationships we foster with partners, family, and friends. Empathy, meanwhile, is difficult to reach without first having sympathy.
Sympathy isn’t always easy either. To sympathize with another person, to connect to the frustration they are experiencing, we have to understand what frustration really means.
How is it different from feeling irritated?
Or feeling annoyed?
These feelings are similar, but not exactly the same as frustration.
When a friend tells us about their frustrating interaction with a coworker, just by reference to the word “frustration” we can relate to their experience. It’s this general understanding of a feeling that allows us to relate to and sympathize with another person’s feelings. But we don’t understand their frustration, we only understand our interpretation of frustration and frustration generally.
Understanding their frustration requires specific understanding.
Empathy is the difference between understanding the feeling of frustration and understanding their feeling of frustration. It builds on the important foundation of sympathy. Just as sympathy is essential to our wellbeing in allowing us to connect with the people we interact with on a daily basis, empathy is essential in allowing us to build trust, connection, and meaningful relationships that support our wellbeing.
When you empathize, you’re not just recognizing someone else's feelings but also experiencing those emotions as if they were your own – stepping into someone else’s shoes, as they say. But what does it really mean to step into someone else’s shoes?
We all agree that a running shoe is different from a dress shoe which is different from a boot which is different from a sandal. When someone says they’re wearing a running shoe, we can imagine how that feels based on our general understanding of shoes and our experience with the shoes we own and wear. That’s sympathy.
Metaphorically at least, empathy is stepping into their shoes. It’s feeling the worn-down insoles, the frayed laces, the stretched-out toe-box and the chewed-up heel. But, this isn’t really possible in the context of our feelings. We don’t get to swap bodies for a day so that we can really understand each other; our tools for understanding just aren’t that high-fidelity.
Fortunately, we have other tools to understand each other. We have language. We use metaphors. We use examples. We can gather context, ask meaningful questions, and speak openly and honestly with each other.
When our friend tells us they had a frustrating day. When we understand what frustration means generally, we can then take our definition of frustration and try to shape it to their experience.
We can ask what they were trying to achieve; we can ask about the goal that’s at the heart of their frustration. We can ask why this goal matters to them. And then really listen to what they say.
We can ask what prevented them from achieving this; we can ask about the blocker that drives feelings of frustration. And then really listen to what they say.
There are times when this is easier and times when this is harder. When it’s a long-time friend or a partner who’s feeling frustrated, we might have more context and understanding readily available to us. We might be able to find empathy sooner. But if it’s a co-worker, a new friend, or a new partner, we might have to dig deeper, ask more questions, and listen more carefully to find empathy.
When you empathize with someone, you step into their shoes, you feel their feelings on a personal level. Empathy requires a deep emotional connection and active listening to truly understand another person's perspective.
Sympathy is our ability to relate to the experience of others. It’s an important emotional skill that allows us to interconnect with the people in our lives, even those we only know in passing. By building our emotional intelligence, and improving our ability to sympathize with others, we build the foundation for empathy.
Empathy is understanding the particular experience of others. It’s an important skill that allows us to foster deeper connections with partners, friends, and loved ones. No matter the context, empathy is something we have to find. It’s something we have to look for.
But thankfully we don’t do this on our own. We connect with people – we try to understand their feelings, and they try to share their feelings with us. We work together to find empathy. We feel together.