True Empathy

The greeting card industry is massive in the United States.  There are greeting cards for every holiday, and for almost every occasion and life transition.  Consistently, the largest card sections are for birthdays and weddings, only to be superseded by larger card sections during specific holidays.  Holidays aside, probably the next largest sections are the get well and sympathy cards.  Over the years I have bought many, many greeting cards, but the ones I found most difficult to choose were the sympathy cards.  Searching for just the right card which said something meaningful, reassuring, or uplifting without being too syrupy, trite, or offensive, was sometimes a prolonged and painstaking task.  

Since living in Mexico the last 3 years, I have discovered there is almost no greeting card industry! Even a trip to Walmart reveals very limited card categories with only a few choices in each category.  I have not found a single Hallmark greeting card store, not even in Mexico City!  I admit, Mexico City is vast, and there may be stores I have not seen, but freestanding greeting card stores seem very scarce.  Consequently, when I wanted to express sympathy to a friend, finding the perfect sympathy card was not an option. I had to find my own words.

Sympathy versus Empathy

Having to find my own words forced me to reflect on what sympathy means and how it differs from empathy. The difference between sympathy and empathy, as traditionally defined, is sympathy lacks a sense of deep connectedness or identification with the other person.  Empathy, on the other hand, involves a sense of commonality and engagement with the other person’s pain and loss.  Therefore, sympathy is considered more superficial than empathy, because there is still a felt emotional distance between the two people.  A simple statement like, “I am sorry for your loss,”  may be somewhat comforting, but the recipient is not likely to feel that the other person really understands or comprehends the depth and dimension of the pain and loss.  Another example of a sympathetic response might be, “Our thoughts and our prayers are with you.”

True Empathy

So, empathy means expressing a strong identification with another person’s pain, right?  Wrong!  Through personal and professional experience, and from years of spiritual reading, I have come to believe the opposite is true.  True empathy means identifying with another person’s strengths and/or their resources, not their weaknesses.  I am grateful to say that in my 35 years as a psychotherapist, I never lost an active client through suicide, even though I had many who expressed suicidal thoughts.  I understand now that the reason for this was I always sought to align with my clients’ strengths.  Rather than try to make them feel better or “fix” their presenting problem or situation, I chose to be fully present to the inner strength and wisdom within them and which is within all of us.  For example, if a client expressed suicidal thoughts, my response was to say, “Thank you for telling me this, because by telling me, you are clear that this is not what you want to do.  What you really want is to end the pain.  We can do that together.”   By identifying with another’s strengths, you strengthen them.  By identifying with another’s pain, you weaken them.

Another component of true empathy is knowing you do not know what is best for the other person.  This means suspending judgment and being in the present moment, rather than attempting to draw conclusions based on the past.  For example, how do you respond to a friend who is in excruciating emotional pain because her husband has just asked for a divorce so he can be with another woman?  Or, how do you respond to an anguished parent who has just lost a child?

A Course in Miracles says this about true empathy.

To empathize does not mean to join in suffering, for that is what you must refuse to understand.  That is the ego’s interpretation of empathy, and is always used to form a special relationship in which the suffering is shared. . . .  You do not know what empathizing means.   Yet of this you may be sure; if you will merely sit quietly by and let the Holy Spirit relate through you, you will empathize with strength and will gain in strength and not in weakness–Chapter 16, Section I, 1-2, 6-7)

If you are uncomfortable with “Holy Spirit” as too much Christian terminology, please go to my article “The Other Voice,” which explains the Holy Spirit is only one of many words or phrases to describe the knowing or wisdom we all have within us.  The point is true empathy does not mean obsessing over finding exactly the correct words or taking the right actions.  It means getting quiet, being fully present, and allowing your response to be expressed through you, not by you.

    

2 Comments

  1. I too am often torn about what I should write or say to someone who has recently experienced a loss or death. This article has given me new incite on how best to comfort and give strength during loss and grief.

    • Stephen Timm

      Thanks for your comment. My purpose in writing the article (and all articles on this site) is to provide something practical and useful in everyday living, so I especially value your comment.

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