What is emotional intelligence?
Emotional intelligence is an important quality that maintains a healthy personal and professional life. Two important components of emotional intelligence are empathy and sympathy. Although people often use “empathy” and “sympathy” interchangeably, they’re different. Empathy and sympathy are both good traits to have because they offer support for people who need it.
What is sympathy?
Feeling sympathy for someone is positive because you are acknowledging someone’s feelings or a situation that they are going through. Sympathy is usually communicated in adverse scenarios to express sorrow and pity, for example, when someone has passed away.
Being sympathetic is about saying, “I hear you. I understand and value what you’re feeling.” It is mainly about observation and acceptance of what someone is going through. Sympathy can also amount to “feeling sorry” for someone. Sympathy is “feeling with” instead of deeply feeling for them, so there is a natural detachment from the situation.
What is empathy?
Being empathetic and feeling empathy is a broader, more intense emotional reaction to a situation someone is in. Being empathetic involves taking on the feelings of the other person or people that are going through a difficult situation. The main difference between empathy and sympathy is that empathy is when you imagine yourself in another person’s shoes, whereas sympathy is feeling sorry for someone’s loss. While being empathic, you experience a fraction of their emotions and feelings after seeing things from their perspective. Empathy is actively listening, asking questions and coming up with solutions.
Is sympathy better than empathy?
Whether a person feels empathetic or sympathetic in a situation depends on the individual, their personality, their background and their own personal experiences. Having gone through or struggled with a similar situation, the chances of being empathetic toward people going through the same experiences is higher.
Sympathy is often an expression of feeling bad or sorry for the other person. Empathy is deeper and more intense than sympathy. It is about acknowledging a person’s feelings and genuinely imagining and trying to feel what it’s like to be in the other person’s shoes. Empathy is putting oneself in the other person’s situation, sharing the emotional burden with the affected person, coming up with solutions and helping them. For example, sympathy may be telling someone who lost a loved one that you feel sorry for them. Empathy would be deeper - listening to the person, sharing their sorrow and spending time with them to help them cope and feel better. Empathy is doing something about it instead of just feeling pity.
Hence, empathy may often be considered better than sympathy. Many people often prefer when others are empathetic toward them rather than just feeling sorry for them, but both of the traits are important to have. They are both acceptable responses based on the situation. Empathy is more difficult to practice. It comes more naturally to some people, but it is often a choice to be empathetic.
What if someone lacks empathy and sympathy?
It is possible for someone to lack empathy and sympathy. This may be due to repressed traumas or even psychopathic tendencies. Lack of empathy and sympathy can lead to problems in one’s personal and professional life. Such people find it difficult to maintain relationships. People who lack empathy and sympathy may have a higher chance of being emotionally or physically abusive or committing crime.
Research has shown that empathy and sympathy are traits that can be developed. There are steps people can take to acknowledge their biases and shortcomings and see things from another’s perspective. Some of these steps involve actively listening, talking to people and being curious. Talking to people from different walks of life, different cultures, upbringing, etc. can help develop empathy and sympathy. One may also seek help from family, friends, counsellors or psychologists to help understand and see things more clearly. Some people may become more empathetic and sympathetic after going through certain experiences in their own lives.
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Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy