Here is one distinction I make which I notice helps a lot of people. It makes it easier for them to take the best decisions in communication and in social interactions with others, and it assists them to improve their people skills. This distinction is between two similar sounding concepts.
Empathy: the ability to understand, perceive and feel another person’s feelings.
Sympathy: the tendency to help others in order to prevent or alleviate their suffering.
These are not exact, dictionary definitions and it seems there are no universally accepted definitions for empathy and sympathy in psychology. These are rather the way I operate with the two concepts, in order to emphasize a couple of key aspects. Here are these aspects:
1) Empathy is always good, sympathy is contextually good.
Understanding the feelings of other people means to access very precious information which you can use in multiple ways.
However, feeling the need to help others is something which from one case to another can be good or bad. Sometimes it can mean honor and building bridges, sometimes it can mean lying, being fake, sacrificing your own needs, not letting others learn on their own and other pointless people pleasing behaviors.
2) You can have one, without the other.
This is the most important part. You can have sympathy with only a vague understanding of the other person’s feelings. You can also understand exactly how bad a person feels and still be capable of not helping her.
You can be a highly empathic person and still have your freedom to act in they ways you think are best, whether they involve helping others or not. You can have empathy and have options at the same time.
Let’s say a friend of yours invites you to their birthday party. While you would like to go, in the very same day there is a conference in another town that you would like to go to even more than the birthday party.
Having empathy means that you understand this will make you friend feel hurt, maybe even a little angry. Having sympathy only as an option means that although you understand this, you can still say no to their invitation and go to the conference instead of the party, without feeling bad. This example is something that actually happened to me recently, and the conference was my choice.
Why is this distinction essential?
It’s essential because when it comes to people skills, many believe that the ability to be empathic and the tendency to have sympathy are the same thing: If you have empathy, you have sympathy. If you understand how badly a person feels then you can’t help but help them in some way, even if rationally you know it’s a poor decision.
As another implication, since many people believe empathy and sympathy can only go hand in hand, they also think that in order to not have sympathy, you have to sacrifice you empathy. You have to become ignorant and numb.
Also, they often believe that they automatically have a lot of empathy because they tend to help others all the time. All of these ideas… are incorrect.
When you have a good understanding of the fact that empathy and sympathy are related phenomena but they go in separate boxes, you can learn to have empathy without always having sympathy, and you take your people skills to the next level.
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