Sympathy vs. Empathy, or “How infertility made me a better friend”

I’ve been thinking about my last post regarding “silver linings,” and I realized yesterday while in a meeting that I missed a big one. In that meeting, someone said “I sympathize with you, I’ve been there myself.”

While I am far from a professional grammarian, I stopped and thought to myself, “did they use that correctly?” I believe that both as a matter of proper definitions and as part of our shared human experience, these two emotions, and the distinction between them is important, if for no other reason than, as the title says, going through the experience of infertility has made me a better friend.

For clarity, let’s start with the distinction between them. There are varying versions of the definitions available, but I would summarize my understanding this way:

• Sympathy is a feeling of care and understanding for the suffering of others.

• Empathy is the ability to mutually experience the thoughts, emotions, and experience of others based on shared or personal experience.

Put another way, sympathy is “I feel bad for that person because something bad happened to them.” Empathy is “I feel bad for that person because I’ve been through the same kind of thing, and I KNOW how bad it sucks.”

What does any of this have to do with infertility or my becoming a better friend? Well, here’s the thing. Life is full of trials and tribulations for all of us, personally, professionally and medically. That last one is in some ways the most scary because, as they say, if you haven’t got your health, the other stuff gets a lot less important. So health challenges for people we know, or their loved ones, are something that most of us can sympathize with.

“Oh, your grandfather has cancer? Oh, that’s terrible. I’m so sorry. I hope he pulls through alright.” That’s sympathy. If, and here’s the thing, we actually mean it. We know these things happen, we know they happen to us all sooner or later, but there is a difference between genuine sympathy and socially required platitudes. It’s not that we don’t mean it per se. It’s just… well… sometimes if we don’t actually share or understand what someone else is going through, then sometimes we have to work hard to truly sympathize. It’s an emotional effort to walk the proverbial mile in someone else’s emotional shoes, and from the outside, they won’t really know whether we deeply care, or are just “saying the right things.”

It’s not that we don’t care for our friends, or that we aren’t sorry for what they’re going through. It’s just that if we can’t “relate,” then until we ourselves or a loved one deals with some challenge – divorce, bankruptcy, illness, grief, or whatever – sympathy is an emotion that, I think, sometimes takes hard work to muster. Empathy is, I think, the much more powerful of these emotional cousins. If I lost my own beloved grandfather to cancer, than that situation resonates with me on a completely different level. No surprise there. Empathy I think is something that can happen almost without thought if you’ve been there before yourself – you feel someone’s pain because you can relate to it. Sympathy often requires work. (BOTH are human skills than anyone can work on however in their daily life, and get better at with practice.)

What did surprise me is not just that our experience with infertility increased my empathy for friends dealing with a whole range of challenges I could relate to, it also increased my sympathy, and my willingness to do the work real sympathy requires, for those dealing with challenges I couldn’t relate to on a personal level. For instance, after experiencing the challenges of infertility, I found that, if you will, my “empathizer” was now activated for friends and colleagues dealing with a wide range of family struggles.

When all you want in the whole world is a family of your own, the struggles of others with infertility, or adoption, or special needs children or child illness or almost any health and wellness issue with a loved one resonates with you in ways that it just didn’t before. Things that might earlier have prompted a few kind words and a furrowed brow of concern could now bring me almost to tears, because I felt the pain of my friends and loved ones in a whole new way. So empathy was increased, as you would expect.

Here’s the thing though, the real silver lining – this increase in empathy for things I could relate to also made me care a lot more mindfully about the people I love. I had so much more awareness of the things I couldn’t relate to, that I was much more able to see, and make, the effort to care more and more deeply when it wasn’t automatic, when I did have to do the work.

It’s no surprise that our experience made me more empathetic, because I could relate to a whole new range of feelings and challenges to friends and loved ones. What did surprise me was how much more sympathetic it has also made me, because I now want to provide that same love and support to people I care about, even when I can’t personally relate to exactly what they’re going through. That makes me feel much closer to, and much more invested in, the relationships I have, and willing to work and fight harder to invest in and sustain them. And that’s a silver lining to cherish…

~ Eric

One comment

  1. Empathy – taking another person’s perspective, refraining from judgement, recognizing the emotion and connecting with that. Empathy is feeling WITH people. SO important.

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