It’s easy at times to become so focused on the trials you are facing that you fail to notice the struggles of everyone around you. The truth is, at any point in time, everyone is fighting some sort of inner battle. While we do our best to hide behind the masks of well placed smiles and perfectly timed laughs, we all have those moments of feeling defeated. It is in these moments of darkness when we reach outside of ourselves to find comfort in a friend. These moments are what define friendships, and far too often in these crucial exchanges we become flustered and end up trying to “fix” our friends rather than console them.
There was an article/video I came across a few days ago comparing empathy and sympathy and the dangers of confusing the two. This piece has literally transformed the way I think about my interactions with people. When someone comes to you with something deeply concerning and emotional, it is in our human nature to yearn to comfort them. We want to console and find a way or a word to make everything “better.” For instance, when someone tells us something is wrong, a typical response will involve a short statement of empathy “I know how you feel,” followed by a monologue of “at least it’s not” or “it could be worse because.” We use these phrases to try and show that there is a brighter side, but really all we have accomplished is to minimize the trial they are facing.
When I saw this, all the times I’ve used the “it could be worse” patch with my friends came flooding back. Rather than just being there in that moment, listening to their struggles, and appreciating their trust in me as a confidant, I tried to give them a bandaid and have them leave smiling. The truth is, as this video states, no words can truly fix a problem. No perfect sentence exists to remedy a broken heart or utter distress. Words don’t fix things. Connections do. Knowing someone cares matters more than their ability to “cheer” me up. When I leave a friend’s apartment after sharing a burden, I will still return to my home feeling the weight of that burden. Their words won’t suddenly relieve all of that pressure. But now they will carry the burden with me, and that will make all the difference. I will know I’m not alone.
So when people seek your counsel, I urge you to remember and be mindful of the difference between empathy and sympathy. Sympathy is simply recognizing the emotions of someone and having concern for their well-being, whereas Empathy is recognizing and experiencing the emotions of someone. Sympathy is feeling bad and trying to cheer them up. Empathy is truly understanding what they are experiencing so that they aren’t alone in their emotions.
There are no perfect words. Nothing you say will fix the trials of another person. Sometimes the best way you can help is to be honest and say “I don’t even know what to say right now, I’m just so glad you told me,” because that creates a connection.
We may use empathy and sympathy interchangeably at times, but in moments of crisis, the difference between the two is the difference between a band aid and a connection. One acts as a momentary patch for the problem, and one provides a second heart to carry a burden that could be truly overwhelming for one to carry alone.