Empathy Over Sympathy: How we react to the suffering of others.

I attended a lecture during my third year of medical school as a part of a joint OB/GYN and Pediatric Grand Rounds on helping mothers through fetal loss. The lecturer asked the audience whether they felt empathy or sympathy, as the healthcare provider in difficult situations such as these. Hands creeped up hesitantly, clearly unsure what the right answer was. This woman went on to explain, by paraphrasing the work of Brené Brown, that when confronted with someone trapped in the deep dark hole of suffering, the sympathizer stands at the top of the hole looking down and decides to throw them something to eat. The empathizer abandons their bird’s eye view to climb down into the hole and sit on the cold, hard floor with them.

Another way to conceptualize this small, but profound difference is to think of sympathy as handing someone who’s crying a box of tissues, nonverbally signaling the person to stop crying and unintentionally suggesting that their reaction to pain is not okay (this then fosters shame around the individual’s healing process, which is likely the very last thing he or she needs in that moment of vulnerability)–whereas empathy is crying with that person, because you realize that the pain of one is the pain of all. Sympathy is offering words of condolence and encouraging the person to move on because it’s easier for everyone that way. Empathy on the other hand is sitting in silence, braving the discomfort by bearing witness and being present in the suffering of another for as long as it takes.

Another expression of sympathy is one we encounter often–the “I’m sorry.” While certainly well-intentioned, this response is one that can inadvertantly invalidate the individual’s experience as we unconsciously center the story around ourselves. When someone choses to disclose their hardships to us, a decision reflective of great bravery as well as trust in the relationship, and we decide to immediately insert our feelings into the dialogue it then becomes about “us” instead of about them. An empathetic alternative might go something like, “This must be very difficult for you.” Try this next time you encounter someone suffering and notice how the conversation opens up.

The reason I’m writing about this now is that as I’ve continued down the path of medicine something has become increasingly clear:

The world doesn’t need more sympathy.

It doesn’t need more of those who express pity and and sorrow only from a distance, afraid of getting close enough to truly understand. What it needs more of are people who are willing to climb into the suffering and bear witness. It needs more people who realize that the only way out is through and who are willing to walk hand in hand to make that walk a little less lonely.

So let’s not be the kind of people who throw out empty, meaningless “How are you?”‘s and continue the small talk without missing a beat, not stopping to search for the pain that might be present behind our neighbor’s eyes. Let’s be willing to get our hands and our hearts dirty to share in the suffering of those around us, so that we might ease the collective burden. Let’s care for one another like we mean it and hop down from our pedestals that allow us to sympathize rather than empathize with the pain of this world.

After all, everything connects and the pain of one is the pain of all.

Image by Lola Photography.

One thought on “Empathy Over Sympathy: How we react to the suffering of others.

  1. Thank you. This is a timely read–I just started reading Sheryl Sandberg’s Option B. Saying, “I’m sorry” or “let me know if there is anything I can do to help” puts the focus on me and the burden of reaching out on the one suffering.

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