There is a fine line between sympathy and empathy. Learning the difference can make huge changes in your relationship with your child.
- Sympathy directs attention to how you feel.
- Empathy is about listening. It tells your child you are paying attention to how she feels.
- Sympathy is about me. Empathy is about you.
- Empathy has nothing to do with how you feel; it’s about understanding how the other feels given their circumstance.
Empathy and sympathy as metaphor:
Imagine a huge hole in the ground with Man A stuck at the bottom unable to escape. Man B walks nearby and hears Man A calling for help. Man B sees Man A at the bottom of the hole and jumps in to help. Now both are stuck at the bottom of the hole. Man C walks by and hears both A and C calling for help. Man C tells them he will be back soon. Later, Man C arrives with a ladder.
Man B acted out of sympathy for Man A and jumped in thinking he was helping Man A. Now both were in the problem. Man A now had Man B to deal with as well as his original problem. Sympathy often becomes more about the sympathizer. Man C empathized understanding the predicament they were in and what was needed. His compassion was helpful. Empathy is more about the person being empathized with.
My mother was a professional worrier. Whenever I expressed having a problem with anything, she sympathized, “Oh my poor dear. That’s so awful. Do you really have to do that?” Her sympathy was not helpful. As a matter of fact, I stopped sharing my problems with her because then I had her feelings and worry to deal with as well as my own problem.