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When you hear the word “empathy,” what comes to mind? I could ask this question of 1,000 people from across the globe and receive varied answers. Likewise, I could consult various online sources and encounter mixed results.
Thinking about this topic, I recall an assistant professor from the Master of Arts in Counseling graduate program asking an auditorium packed with students what we thought about the difference between empathy and sympathy. More on him in a bit.
As well, when I attended grad school a second time for a Master of Science in Social Work degree, an assistant professor told the class how she differentiated empathy from sympathy. Per her definition, the former related to feeling what another person feels while the latter equated to expressed pity for others.
I suppose it’s reasonable to conclude that terms we learn in life—and which we may not critically evaluate—are understood to be universally shared by others. For instance, if I understand what I think love is, I may believe others share the same definition.
Would it surprise you to know that not everyone shares the same definitions of terms as you—even regarding words you think are well-understood? This phenomenon relates to the curse of knowledge, a cognitive bias in which we fail to properly understand the perspective of others who have less information than we may have.
Psychologist Steven Pinker describes the curse of knowledge as, “When you know something, it’s hard to imagine what it is like for someone else not to know it.” To refrain from use of this form of bias, I invite you to consider what empathy is.
What is empathy?
Starting off, I turn to one of my favorite sources for definitions regarding terms of common parlance, the Urban Dictionary:
There, I learn that sympathy is different than empathy, in that the latter suggests shared experience while the former simply involves thought. I can appreciate this distinction, because I may think about what it would be like to orbit the Earth though I don’t know what it’s like to do so.
Next, I turn to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary:
There, I receive a more nuanced definition. The imagined thoughts, emotions, or experiences of another person without having received elaborate description of these elements is said to constitute empathy.
Further, sympathy is differentiated from empathy through suggestion of the former relating to concern and the latter equating to a shared emotional experience. Similar to the Urban Dictionary submission, sympathy relates to thinking about what a person feels while empathy describes knowing what the individual experiences.
Perhaps the Cambridge Dictionary may further elucidate the meaning of empathy:
There, I learn that empathy involves shared feelings or experiences through imagining what others may experience. Sympathy is said to differ due to an expression of understanding or care for the experience of others.
So far, these definitions are largely similar. Knowing or shared understanding versus communicated concern or understanding seems to be the distinction between empathy and sympathy.
Now, I turn to the American Psychological Association’s (APA) Dictionary of Psychology:
There, I learn that empathy isn’t about actually feeling what another person feels though the experience of imagination concerning the thoughts, feelings, or experiences of others. I may hear of someone who loses a home to a volcanic explosion, never having experienced this event myself, and imagine what it would be like for the person impacted by the blast.
Sympathy is defined somewhat differently than previous sources, in that it’s said to be a form of concern with an element of response to the cognitions, emotions, or experiences of others. The APA’s distinction between these terms is ever so slight.
I now turn to the field of nursing in order to discover how a helping professional differentiates between empathy and sympathy:
There, I discover that what I thought I’ve learned has been challenged. Empathy is said to involve an ability to enter into or borrow the current feelings of a person in order to better understand the individual, though with distinct separation from the person.
However, sympathy is said to represent a loss of oneself to the feelings and circumstances of another person as though the two are one. There is a stark difference between this definition and those previously examined.
Now that I’m confused, allow me to turn towards a popular social worker who can perhaps make sense of all this, Brené Brown:
In a relatively short video, Brown states:
Empathy involves “perspective-taking—the ability to take the perspective of another person or recognize their perspective as their truth. Staying out of judgment—not easy when you enjoy it as much as most of us do. Recognizing emotion in other people and then communicating that. Empathy is feeling with people. And to me, I always think of empathy as this kind of sacred space. When someone’s kind of in a deep hole, and they shout out from the bottom, and they say, ‘I’m stuck, it’s dark, I’m overwhelmed.’ And then we look and we say, ‘Hey!’ And climb down. ‘I know what it’s like down here, and you’re not alone.”
“Sympathy is, ‘Ooh! It’s bad, uh huh. Uh…no. You want a sandwich? Empathy is a choice and it’s a vulnerable choice, because in order to connect with—I have to connect with something in myself that knows that feeling. Rarely, if ever, does an empathic response begin with, ‘At least…”
Before continuing, I want to express gratitude for Brown’s use of the word “empathic,” not “empathetic,” as my mind stays stuck on “pathetic” regarding the latter. Pettines out of the way; let us move on.
Brown suggests that offering “silver lining” responses (e.g., At least you aren’t dead) isn’t entirely helpful.
She continues, “If I share something with you that’s very difficult, I’d rather you say, ‘Whew, I don’t even know what to say right now. I’m just so glad you told me.’ Because the truth is, rarely can a response make something better. What makes something better is connection.”
Not to be overly simplistic, though to summarize what I understand Brown’s point means, I think a single sentence may capture the gist of her sentiment. Empathy is, “I feel your pain,” as sympathy is, “I see you’re in pain.”
Brown’s definition of empathy and sympathy are significantly different from the aforementioned nursing description. Perhaps to conclude my exploration of the differences between these terms, I could approach the matter from a philosophical perspective.
Turning to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, I learn:
There, I discover that empathy is thought to represent knowing what others think and feel so that we may in turn share those thoughts and feelings. As well, the author addresses “conceptual confusion,” clearly exemplified herein by use of varying sources.
Nonetheless, the source discusses sympathy as a clear separation from—though acknowledgement of—the suffering of others. I suppose when people say, “I feel sorry for you,” sympathy is at hand rather than, “I feel sorrow with you,” which would constitute empathy.
Still, the author admits that “sympathy does not necessarily require feeling any kind of congruent emotions on the part of the observer,” which is in alignment with Brown’s comical, “Ooh! It’s bad, uh huh. Uh…no,” and quick deflection to another topic when others are suffering.
Venom and Carnage
Noteworthy, the philosophical explanation about the difference between empathy and sympathy addresses one of the major points within this blog entry. The author highlights how those who are “accustomed to the misery of others” may experience “compassion fatigue” or “empathic overarousal.”
Regarding compassion, I once again turn to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary:
There, I learn that both compassion and empathy involve caring for a person’s suffering, though empathy suggests a sharing of the experience while compassion relates to a desire to alleviate the distress. In the mental health field, compassion fatigue—weariness from mental and emotional exertion—is something worth considering for the sake of one’s own health.
For clarity, one source describes compassion fatigue as occurring when mental health practitioners “take on the suffering of patients who have experienced extreme stress or trauma.” A crude way of conceptualizing this occurrence relates to the character Venom from Marvel Comics.
The alien symbiote bonds with a host and the product of this combination takes on altered characteristics in regards to cognition, emotion, and behavior. Trauma and suffering can have this effect. Psychotherapists exposed to frequent distress can then adopt similar features of those who we treat.
“Overly intense and salient signs of distress can create an experience in the observer that is so aversive that the observer’s empathic distress transforms into a feeling of personal distress,” per a separate source in regards to empathic overarousal. This is akin to Carnage, also a Marvel Comics symbiotic character, inhabiting the therapist.
It is important to understand that compassion fatigue represented by Venom and empathic overarousal exemplified by Carnage are conditions, not the host. A therapist who over-identifies with a client’s trauma or suffering may experience similar distress without becoming a separate entity.
This is where my counseling grad school assistant professor enters the chat. When counseling students were asked what we thought about the difference between empathy and sympathy, I shared my perspective and as a result I was immediately chastised.
My position was that while I could experience a Brené Brown-esque sympathy for strangers or regarding those with whom I worked, I didn’t truly know what a person thought, felt, or experienced. Moreover, I didn’t share the struggle of other people.
Per my perspective, one may consider that I didn’t empathize in the way of vicarious experience concerning the feelings, perceptions, or thoughts of clients I served at my internship site during the time I was in grad school. My admission went over like a wet fart in church service.
The educator admonished me for daring to suggest that I—a future counselor—rejected the notion of empathy when serving clients. He made such an ordeal of my viewpoint that a fully tenured professor intervened on my behalf.
I saw no practical utility in meeting with someone who experienced trauma and suffering, only to take on that experience myself, thus rendering impairment in judgement, competence, and ability thereafter. Why become Venom or Carnage when someone seeks help?
Many years later, the tenured professor told me he’d never had a student like me in the program—one willing to admit that empathy was perhaps not useful when functioning in the role of a clinician. Per the man for whom I retain a great deal of respect, he experienced wonderment concerning my position.
A case against empathy
It wasn’t until years after my counseling education that I heard psychologist Paul Bloom’s perspective in his book Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion. Bloom essentially, and in a much more effective manner, argued a position I presented to the aforementioned assistant professor.
In a video about this topic, Bloom stated:
“The best medical professionals understand their patients, care about their patients, but they don’t feel their pain. And it’s not good for the patient either. If you could forgive me an anecdote, my uncle was ill last year of cancer and we were in Boston—we went to different…I went with him to see different doctors. And the sort of doctors he got along well with, he liked, were ones not who felt his anxiety, not who mirrored his anxiety, and worry, and stress—but were respectful, and confident, and clear, and honest; somebody who could look, who didn’t echo his suffering but rather responded to it.”
At this point in my career, I’ve had a number of prospective clients reach out for an initial consultation and who request upfront that I not share in their pain. It isn’t uncommon for me to hear something like, “My last therapist cried during a session and it made me feel uncomfortable. I don’t want or need you to cry.”
Imagine bearing the depth of suffering that clings to you like a symbiote. You don’t think you can share details of trauma with friends or loved ones, perhaps as a means of protecting them from also experiencing pain.
You turn to a professional; someone you hope is clinically capable and emotionally prepared to help you process a trauma narrative. Then, your therapist breaks down in session and cries uncontrollably.
Someone reading this may think, “Yes, that’s exactly what I want. I want someone who is emPATHETIC and who shares my pain.” Wonderful! If you know what you want, I strongly encourage you to seek the services that best suit your needs.
For future clients who value compassion, though not someone who will suffer with you, I value Bloom’s viewpoint. How effective would I be as a psychotherapist when a client reports the inability to get out of bed or bathe for a week, and I mimic the behavior by not presenting to session, because now I’m suffering?
In the video, Bloom continues stating:
“Therapists have to understand their clients and they have to…they have to feel compassion for them. They have to know what they’re going through. But anybody who thinks therapists should actually feel their client’s pain doesn’t understand therapy. In that, if I go to my shrink and I…and I sit, you know, and I’m really anxious, ‘This book will never sell,’ and I don’t want her to get anxious. I don’t want her to go, ‘Oh my God, we’re in big trouble!’ Then I have two problems, not one. What I want her is…to kind of look at me and say, ‘So, how does that make you feel?’ And, basically have this sort of distance that’s part of any good therapist’s training.”
Expanding upon Bloom’s stance, one psychiatrist assistant professor at Brown University has stated the following:
Outlined herein, the terms empathy and sympathy have different meanings depending on which source one considers. Being charitable to the counseling assistant professor’s perspective, it may be considered a kind, good, or righteous deed to practice empathy with clients.
In this regard, empathy isn’t a feeling like our core emotions (joy, fear, anger, sorrow, and disgust). Rather, it’s an imagined experience with this interpretation then projected onto the person who is suffering.
As one source states, “A sympathetic understanding is an imaginative attempt to sense another’s otherness without purporting to appropriate or own their existential uniqueness.” The operative word is “imaginative.”
Whether considering the Urban Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Cambridge, the APA, a nurse’s perspective, Brown’s view, or a philosophical explanation, empathy is largely associated with imagination.
Similar to Bloom’s shared anecdote, I will use two personal narratives to gauge whether or not you share or can imagine my experience in the interest of empathy. I invite you to draw upon your own thoughts, feelings, and experiences when reading the following.
As far back as I can recall, from before I ever entered school, I was taught that death was a natural part of the life cycle. As sure as I lived, I would one day die.
My parents didn’t sugarcoat death with euphemisms like, “Gone too soon,” “Passed away,” or, “Went to heaven.” I was told the objective truth about death, as I also witnessed a significant portion of fatal motor vehicle accidents as a child.
Throughout adolescence, death was commonplace with exposure to music, television shows, film, and the knucklehead activity of my friends. There was no hiding from an inevitable end, no escaping death.
In adulthood, I worked in the fields of military police and diplomatic security, observing and being exposed to even more death-related events. As such, I have lifelong exposure to death and I accept the process for what it is—a fact of life.
Therefore, when someone to whom I’m close dies, I don’t experience bereavement. I’m not gripped with sorrow, the inability to function, or left questioning the inescapable end of my existence.
Nonetheless, and though I hadn’t maintained contact with her in 26 years, when my mom died a year ago, many people expressed condolences. Even people who were raised as I was brought up began sharing sympathy.
One relative who I hadn’t heard from in 38 years, though we live in the same city and have for a decade, reached out to me and expressed disbelief in my lack of sorrow. What is it I was expected to think, feel, or experience?
If one maintains that I should, must, or ought to have grieved my mother, though I last resided with her when I was in seventh grade, upon what is this expectation based? Who is to say what one should feel?
I think of 2Pac’s verse in “Dear Mama,” when he stated, “Now, ain’t nobody tell us it was fair. No love from my daddy, ‘cause the coward wasn’t there. He passed away and I didn’t cry, ‘cause my anger wouldn’t let me feel for a stranger. They say I’m wrong and I’m heartless, but all along I was lookin’ for a father, he was gone.”
Though I wasn’t angry with my mother at the time of her death, because practice of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT) works for me, I didn’t shed a tear for someone who wasn’t there. Might you share my experience with the death of your mother?
If not, does your imagination of my condition accurately represent my experience? What is the purpose of centering yourself in the complexity of my circumstance, all for the purpose of empathy?
Just as 2Pac referenced how others shamed him for not expressing an expected or supposedly appropriate reaction to the death of a parent, I’ve received criticism of my response to death. Is it even possible to literally think or feel precisely what another person thinks or feels?
Would it not make more sense to simply use rational compassion rather than imagination in this instance? Bloom describes rational compassion by stating, “We can care about people, want to make their lives better, without putting ourselves in their shoes,” by way of relating and understanding—not feeling the suffering or sharing the experience.
During the course of my social work education and training, when at an internship site, I observed an interaction between a veteran and a social worker. I was wearing a National League of Families POW/MIA lanyard at the time.
The female social worker attempted to engage a male veteran, though he instead turned away from her and spoke directly to me. Speaking to her though facing me, he said, “If you aren’t a veteran like us, you wouldn’t understand” the posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) for which he was seeking treatment.
The veteran then quizzed me about my service and what disabilities he imagined I had. The social work preceptor and I had previously discussed professional use of self and what to do in such an event.
At first, I redirected the questions back to the veteran (i.e., “What about my service do you find interesting,” “How would knowledge of my diagnoses support your treatment,” etc.). The veteran explained that unless a social worker had walked in his “boots,” he wasn’t interested in opening up.
Rather than acknowledging that I maintain a service-connected PTSD disability rating, and instead of discussing my affiliation with the United States Marine Corps—contrary to the practice of empathy outlined herein, I used rational compassion.
I told the veteran that whatever it was he cared to discuss would likely benefit him more than hearing about me. After all, the social worker to whom the veteran gave the cold shoulder was training me. She was the knowledgeable one about how to treat PTSD, not I.
I added that although I may have some level of understanding or even shared experience as a veteran, a mental health diagnosis could have served as an impairment in my life—just as the veteran’s condition impacted his—and asked who would the veteran rather have treat him, an impaired person or one who trained clinicians to work with impaired people.
At that, the veteran grinned, turned away from me, and spoke with the social worker. I was able to use rational compassion without imagining or vicariously experiencing the veteran’s condition. In other words, I didn’t need to feel with the veteran.
I’ll start with the obvious challenge to what I’ve outlined herein. I imagine a person asking, “Deric, what about impaths?” Per one source, “Empaths are highly sensitive individuals, who have a keen ability to sense what people around them are thinking and feeling.”
In my personal life, I’ve known of people who claim to be empaths. I’m uncertain as to whether or not the experience they describe is a blessing, curse, or something else. From what I understand, constantly feeling what other people feels seems like it would be unpleasant.
According to one source, “[R]esearch on the concept of empaths is inconclusive at best.” Moreover, a separate source suggests, “[T]he powers associated with being an empath as described online appear to be bogus pop psychology.”
There is an abundance of resources in online search engines which claim empaths are legitimate conditions or identities. Personally, I don’t know if such a circumstance is possible.
Christopher Hitchens, a late author and journalist, is credited with Hitchens’ Razor which claims “what can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.” Carl Sagan, a late astrophysicist and author, is credited with the Sagan Standard which states that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”
I see no convincing evidence to suggest that what self-professed empaths experience is genuinely shared thoughts, feelings, or experiences of other people. As such, I simply dismiss the empath critique as prima facie nonsense.
Next, I suspect a person reading this post may suggest as one source declares, “We also know that a lack of empathy is associated with sociopaths and psychopathic behaviour.” Baseless claims such as this are primarily why I’m skeptical of the peer review system.
During both my counseling and social work grad programs I encountered many journal submissions using this very tactic. Stating, “We know […],” without declaring what epistemological foundation supports the claim is a waste of my time.
Nonetheless, my late stepmom used to say, “Perception is reality.” While I disagree with this statement, even Brené Brown expresses belief in “the ability to take the perspective of another person or recognize their perspective as their truth.”
I reject claims of “personal truth” or how one’s “lived experience” represents objective truth. Simply because I am unconvinced that an “empath” who imagines how others feel and misinterprets that information with claims of shared experience doesn’t suggest sociopathy or psychopathy is at hand.
Likewise, it doesn’t allude to narcissism. These terms are discriminately tossed around on social media platforms by people familiar with psychobabble, though who in my opinion have little knowledge, wisdom, or understanding about these labels.
The practice of REBT promotes “stoic calm,” emphasizing the Epictetian notion, “It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.” What may better serve you, allowing unbridled emotions to rule your life or instead opting to reduce a self-disturbed emotive experience?
I’m reminded of a scene in the Marvel Cinematic Universe film Captain Marvel when Yon-Rogg is teaching Carol Danvers to control her emotions, because the outcome of raging anger could lead to devastating consequences.
During training, Yon-Rogg states, “There is nothing more dangerous to a warrior than emotion,” and, “Anger only serves the enemy.” Later in the film, when portrayed as a villain while fighting Danvers’ alter ego, Captain Marvel, Yon-Rogg states, “Can you keep your emotions in check long enough to take me on? Or, will they get the better of you as always?”
The triumphant Captain Marvel is able to refrain from imbalanced rage through control of her emotions. I have many criticisms of the film, though placing those aside and evaluating what may have resulted had Danvers not learned restraint is the point I choose to emphasize.
Suppose Danvers didn’t use Stoic practice of controlling her superhuman energy-directed attacks of emotional inspiration. Would recklessly destroying persons, places, and things reflect more of a superhero or supervillain?
Likewise, imagine one who provides therapy to Danvers taking on the extreme emotion with similarly detrimental consequences. Who would best be served by the resulting calamity and ruin?
Therefore, I reject the shaming of those who practice a Stoic approach. A lack of empathy isn’t necessarily associated with sociopathic, psychopathic, or narcissistic traits. It may actually indicate one who shows restraint in spite of discomforting cognitions and emotions.
Finally, while a Brown-esque “feeling with people” approach may seem like a moral good, I argue that its inherent function is actually biased and the term “good” is subjective. To test this hypothesis, simply use qualitative observation.
Do you empathize with Hitler, Trump, Elizabeth Báthory de Ecsed, Biden, Satan, or Albert Fish? Do you share the thoughts, feelings, or experiences of these entities?
How do you know what you feel is what they may feel? Does your imagination about the experience of an out-group “other” allow you to truly intuit what it’s like to be a member of that group?
Perhaps you empathize only with those whom you agree. Maybe you can think thoughts and feel emotions in congruence with an identified group, though not with members of an opposing faction.
I could be wrong. You very well may be the one human among all others who has zero bias. I’m guessing that without discernment you can fully experience all the bodily sensations, emotions, cognitions, and behaviors of anyone you meet.
You don’t simply imagine; you know what people in Yidu, Duque de Caxias, Hyderabad, and Balakovo experience when hearing about the deaths of their mothers, right? It doesn’t matter that you know nothing about contextual information, because you’re using empathy.
I could place you in a room, sensory deprived, and escort a member of any of these places into the same room. You would know precisely what they thought, felt, or experienced, correct? Perhaps with some imagination, you may be able to guess their experiences, no?
While I’m not here to tell others what is good, bad, right, wrong, or otherwise—and I don’t demand what people should, must, or ought to believe—I think I’ll refrain from playing make-believe with my clients.
I-feel-what-you-feel may be comforting, though I’m not fond of lying to others. Besides, as an REBT psychotherapist, I’m not interested in helping clients feel better. I’m concerned with helping them get better.
I agree with a source that states, “Clients often think that therapy consists of pouring out one’s heart to the therapist and receiving sympathy. ‘Sympathy from a therapist or cathartic expression of one’s emotions can help clients feel better, but it does not teach them the skills to get better... [Y]ou have friends to help you feel better, and you have a rational emotive behavior therapist to help you get better.”
These things stated, with new evidence I could change my perceptions about perceived criticisms using Bayesian reasoning: Prior belief + new evidence = new belief. Until then, I remain unconvinced and I’m not certain empathy is necessary when helping others.
Now, when you hear the word “empathy,” what comes to mind? Differentiating between empathy and sympathy isn’t as straightforward as one may have thought prior to reading this entry.
Many definitions of empathy outlined herein describe a process of imagination—not actual shared thought, emotion, or experience. I question those who claim to know what others experience.
My mother died and you likely wouldn’t share what I went through if or when your mom dies. As well, I can’t use my experience as a veteran with PTSD to know what life is like for another veteran with PTSD.
While humans may share similarities, we aren’t a monolith. We are not all the same. In fact, our diversity of cognition, complexity of emotion, and vastly different experiences may only be shared or imagined by a minority of individuals—if not solely by ourselves.
As such, and contrary to position of the assistant professor who led a discussion on empathy during my counseling education, empathy may not be the best—or even an appropriate—practice I may use when working with clients.
Do I care about other people? Of course. Do I use rational compassion with my clients? Certainly. Do I think what my clients think, feel what they feel, or truly understand their unique circumstances? Absolutely not.
In my opinion, it’s a good thing this is the case. Symbiosis of me, a client, and Venom (compassion fatigue) or Carnage (empathic overarousal) may not serve the client or me as well as one may think.
I propose it is necessary for some level of healthy boundary between what a client brings to session and my interpretation of the presenting issue. Therefore, I maintain that rational compassion is my preferred practice.
If you’re looking for a provider who seeks to listen, understand, and help you navigate suffering without over-identifying to the point of impairment or becoming enveloped in the anguish you experience, I invite you to reach out today by using the contact widget on my website.
As a psychotherapist, I’m pleased to help people with an assortment of issues ranging from anger (hostility, rage, and aggression) to relational issues, adjustment matters, trauma experience, justice involvement, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, anxiety and depression, and other mood or personality-related matters.
At Hollings Therapy, LLC, serving all of Texas, I aim to treat clients with dignity and respect while offering a multi-lensed approach to the practice of psychotherapy and life coaching. My mission includes: Prioritizing the cognitive and emotive needs of clients, an overall reduction in client suffering, and supporting sustainable growth for the clients I serve. Rather than simply helping you to feel better, I want to help you get better!
Deric Hollings, LPC, LCSW
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