There can be confusion about what empathy is and is not. Is it the same as sympathy? If you have empathy for someone does it mean you have to agree with them?
While empathy and sympathy can often be used in similar contexts, they are actually fairly different. To have sympathy for someone, you feel sorrow for them and their situation.
Empathy is the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. Even if you have never experienced something similar to them, you imagine what it might be like.
Your roommate tells you that they failed an exam. They are very upset. You know they waited until the last minute to study, then crammed as much as they could the night before.
- Sympathy – You feel bad for them, knowing that this exam was a big deal and that it could negatively impact their standing in their class, as well as their program.
- Empathy – You imagine what it might feel like for them to have performed poorly. What were they thinking and feeling after seeing the results? You imagine that they are disappointed and worried. You wonder if they are questioning their approach to the exam or what the consequences will be.
Having empathy for someone does not mean that you agree with them or condone their thoughts or feelings. It simply is an exercise of imagining what it would be like if you were in their shoes.
EXAMPLES OF EMPATHY
There are a few ways empathy can be helpful. One example is that it can allow you to navigate through frustrating situations more effectively.
Your brother forgot to leave for work on time and was given a third write up, which may lead to him getting fired. You are so frustrated with him for not getting out of bed in time for work and yell at him, calling him 'lazy'. You are worried that him losing his job will affect your family's ability to pay rent this month.
You put yourself in his shoes and try to imagine how he feels possibly losing his job. You know he has been under a tremendous amount of pressure and it has affected his sleep, which could have been a reason why he slept past his alarm.
You imagine that he is being very self critical and feels very anxious and worried at the moment. To have empathy for him, you do not need to have an opinion about him not getting to work on time, you just need to put yourself in his shoes.
You plan a big virtual movie watching party via Zoom for the weekend and invite your friends. You forgot to invite one of your friends, however, because they never participated in the past and and mentioned that they do not like to watch movies in this format.
The friend sends you a text while you are finishing the movie asking why they were not invited. You feel frustrated because you 'knew' they would not want to come. They then mention that they were looking forward to making this the first time they watched movie with a group virtually.
You put yourself in their shoes and imagine that they are feeling hurt, frustrated, and excluded. You imagine that they may be wondering if you are still good friends with them, especially after you invited so many people but did not invite them.
Your partner made a joke about your cooking that you did not appreciate, particularly since you are self-conscious about how you cook. You had not communicated this feeling about your cooking previously. You responded by telling them that you only need to cook because they are too lazy to help out, reminding them that they have been spending too much time on their phone lately. They get frustrated and leave the room.
They have mentioned in the past that they really enjoy connecting with their family back home via text messages and now had a better relationship with their father than they ever did in the past. In the back of your mind, you used this example because you knew it was something that would hurt their feelings.
You put yourself in their shoes and imagine what it would be like for you to criticize them for their phone use. You think that they might feel hurt and defensive after hearing your comment. They may also wonder why you said this since you often joke with each other as a couple.
You feel a little guilty about your response, but also vow to address the situation directly and assertively, which would include your thoughts and feelings about their joke about your cooking.
Your roommate promised that they will take out the trash whenever they came home later that day. They arrive home later than they thought and go right to bed. You are frustrated that they promised to take out the trash but did not.
You put yourself in their shoes and imagine what it would be like to be exhausted after having such a long day. You think that they may have been so tired that all they could think about was sleeping. You remind yourself that it is also uncharacteristic for them to say they would do something, then not do it.
You are not necessarily saying it was okay/not okay that they did not take out the trash, you are simply putting yourself in their shoes. You feel a little less activated now that you are thinking about their perspective.
Increasing your ability to show empathy for others is a great skill and will greatly assist you in many areas of your life. We hope that you can utilize this as much as possible.