Musings on Sympathy vs. Empathy, Why Language Shifts & Viewing All People as People

A few months back, I wrote a post on FB that involved having empathy for others. Someone initiated a bad faith argument with me and provided a grammar lesson on the difference between sympathy and empathy. If you haven’t experienced something yourself, all you can feel is sympathy; empathy indicates you have also been through it. Though I knew these technical definitions already, I have noticed a shift over the years where people now gravitate to the word empathy either way. I have some thoughts on the topic to share.

Why is empathy better than sympathy?

The word “sympathy” is closely aligned with “pity,” and most people don’t want to be pitied. Perhaps the connotation hasn’t always been negative, but language changes, and pity now evokes ideas of condescension and superiority. “I feel sorry for you” is practically an intentionally insulting phrase at this point. As a wheelchair user, this hits close to home. I don’t want people to figuratively look down their noses at me (even if they have to literally…haha).

Nowadays, people use empathy not just for circumstances they have experienced but for those which they try to understand. If a person empathizes with me, it means they are attempting to imagine my struggles and put themselves in my shoes, even if they will never truly get it. Clearly, most of us would rather people try to relate to us than just pity us.

In this light, empathy is more humanizing than sympathy. Also, empathy can drive meaningful change. If someone sympathizes with me, it means they feel sad for me that I have to grapple with Friedreich’s Ataxia. But if they empathize with me, it hopefully means they will think more deeply about my access and mobility struggles. If someone puts themselves in my shoes, they could take note of things around them that aren’t handicap-friendly and perhaps advocate change.

Language shifts–and that’s okay

I find it nonsensical when people gatekeep definitions. The fact is, language is an ever-evolving tool for humans to communicate with each other. There is no objective basis for definitions; rather, context and popular use determine meaning. I’m an avid reader of classic novels, and what I’m saying is obvious if you compare common vernacular from different historical periods.

I think the shift comes from an increased understanding of the nuance around compassion vs. respect. We’ve come to understand that people with illnesses or other marginalizing qualities are not “less than.” One hundred years ago, people like me were excluded from the public arena and not seen as dignified, autonomous adults. If the disabled were regarded more like sick puppies than actual human beings, how could people feel anything but pity?

As I type this, I’m having an epiphany.

In the past, many groups of people were literally, even scientifically regarded as “less than”: women, black and brown people, disabled people, etc. I assert that the real underlying reason for the move from “sympathy” to “empathy” is our developing ability to view all people as equally worthy of life and liberty. Think about it: we can’t empathize with people unless we view them as people. Now , we can meet a person who’s different from us or who faces hardships and acknowledge their struggles, discrimination, etc. yet also fully affirm their humanity.

A warning to still tread carefully

Though it’s fantastic if we can imagine what others go through day in and day out, we ought to beware of trivializing others’ experiences. For instance, it feels jarring if I complain about disability-related struggles, and an able-bodied or temporarily disabled person casually throws out a response like, “I completely understand.” Uh, do what, now? You “completely understand” years of extreme insecurity for “walking funny,” physical and emotional pain from falls and progression, coming to grips with ever-narrowing options for the future, and an encyclopedia worth more? It’s not cool to minimize others’ struggles.

For this reason, I prefer to write “try to” in front of the word “empathize.” Though I attempt to put myselves in the shoes of those who aren’t financially secure…who live with constant fear or stress or sadness…who don’t have people to turn to when they need help…who deal with all kinds of issues I don’t have to face, I must stay humble and remember that I will never really relate…just as an impoverished or depressed or lonely person might never relate to having a physical handicap like mine. But if we can TRY to empathize with each other, perhaps we could help each other. ♥

Thanks for reading! What’s your opinion on empathy vs. symmpathy? Let me know in the comments.

P.S. Click on the photo to see me featured in a blog post about the best disability blogs. 🙂

5 comments

  1. The more we have these definition debates, the more I just like the old fashioned word “compassion.” We’re called to have compassion towards one another. Sympathy is a bit more like pity, making ourselves feel superior, and empathy is about how much we allegedly care because it once impacted us personally. The thing is, both of those things are totally all about us. But compassion is simply a call to care about suffering and it carries no judgement. We can even have compassion on someone who is wallowing in self inflicted misery, if we want to.

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  2. When I hear “Sympathy”, all I think about is death. Grief. It’s what you feel when someone you care about is experiencing a loss.
    Emapthy…..I have kind of a love/hate relationship with this word.

    I am a self-identified and self-described empath. And people sling this term around a lot, but when they do, I don’t think they understand the psychological implications behind it.

    First of all, it doesn’t make me a psychic. Nor does it make me superior or THINK I am superior to anyone else. But I’ve known this about myself since I was a very young child.

    Being an Empath means feeling other peoples emotions and feeling your OWN emotions very, very deeply. When I was a kid, I would become overwhelmed by other people and their moods. I thought I had to fix whatever was wrong and, looking back, I realize this was as much for my own relief as theirs.

    This led to a lifetime of people-pleasing which led to toxic relationships which led to a lot of emotional scarring.

    I had to learn how to control my empathy. And I’m still struggling with it. Detachment without feeling cruel is a daily struggle, but a necessary one for my own mental health.

    Empathy is something a lot of people need to learn, and I think your definitions and distinctions between these two often misunderstood words was spot on.

    As someone who loves words but also respects how much they convey, I also do my best to never say, “I understand” when I absolutely could not begin to comprehend all of the complexities of another person’s experience.

    But, collectively, as a society, we need more empathy, I think. More TRYING to put ourselves in our neighbor’s shoes. Or wheelchair.

    This was a great post, Lily. Thanks for all the food for thought, as always!

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  3. This is especially interesting to me as I’m about to post this weekend about my youngest being very empathetic. There are such varying definitions of ‘empaths’. Your post was really interesting! Happy Saturday!

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  4. Very good thoughts Lily! I inwardly cringe when others say, ” bless your heart” in reference to my TBI. It doesn’t feel right to me, instead it feels like they are really just showing “sympathy” but in a judgmental way. Hugs and prayers!🤗

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