Empathy Vs Sympathy: Why We Need Both



This hasn’t been my most fun week (sorry guys, I refuse to admit funnest is a real word.)  I may have mentioned it briefly here and there, but I had sinus surgery last week and spent the ensuing time with my rear in bed, resting.  No surgery is ever fun, and I’m probably the world’s worst patient because I have stuff to do, no time for resting!

However.  The experiences of this time haven’t been completely wasted.  Today, as I fought nausea off and forced myself to irrigate nasal passages yet again, I reflected on this as an empathy building experience.  Empathy, that lovely word that we use so much.  We want our kids to have empathy.  To “walk a mile in someone’s shoes.”  Gifted kids, especially suffer from too much empathy at times.  It’s hard to always feel so much.

Before I dive right in and discuss how this situation has brought me new empathy, I probably need to elaborate on something first.  What is empathy?  What is sympathy?  And why exactly do I say we need both?  Aren’t they the same?

Similar.  One is more intense than the other.

The Dictionary.com blog defines it as:

“…sympathy is feeling compassion, sorrow, or pity for the hardships that another person encounters, while empathy is putting yourself in the shoes of another.”

I would go further and say that empathy almost requires having a same or similar experience as the person you are empathizing with.  At the very least, you need an extremely vivid imagination and a willingness to inflict emotional pain on yourself in order to have empathy.

And my definition is why I think gifted kids suffer – a pointedly chosen word – from too much empathy.  It’s enough to feel compassion for someone.  You don’t have to actually experience their pain too.

Still, we need some measure of empathy.

I realized this week that I can empathize with my son’s Sensory Processing Disorder because I am highly sensitive as well.  I may not have full-blown SPD, or I may have outgrown it as I aged, but I still can’t stand certain sensations.  Things that I know shouldn’t be painful are – and things that rightly are painful may not be that bad.  Or they may be worse than everyone else’s experiences.

For whatever reason, I have a high pain tolerance.  I also have a low pain threshold.  So, while I can tolerate a lot of pain, it feels really really bad.  Did I say really bad?  Childbirth without pain meds (not entirely by choice, by the way) was a nightmare.  I actually fired that obstetrician because she snidely said after my daughter emerged, “you can stop screaming now, she’s out.”

My son has a low pain tolerance.  Something like that.  His pain sensors are a bit screwy due to his SPD.  But, things that shouldn’t be an issue are excruciatingly painful.  He can’t always articulate what or why about what’s bothering him, but we’ve managed to figure out when something is bothering him.

Things like going to the dentist are horrible.  That little pick they scrape on your teeth?  He hates it.  When he was little we had to hold him down while the dentist inspected his teeth: he fought so hard I was afraid he was going to impale himself on it.

Sock seams, pant seams, tags on shirts – they’re incredibly painful.  We know to buy clothes with printed tags – and even those can be an issue if the words peel up the slightest bit.

As I stand before the sink in the bathroom yet again, I realize that this irrigation thing is something else that shouldn’t be painful.  And I realize why my son hates getting his face in the water so much: getting water in your sinuses is incredibly painful for us.  I’ve always watched swimmers casually jump into the pool and wished that I could do that.  I’ve never been able to explain why I can’t.  Neither can my son.  Now that I’m older, it’s a little easier to describe:  it burns.  It hurts.  I paw frantically at my face trying to blow the water out before my throat convulses.  It’s like liquid fire in my sinuses, and it’s impossible to completely remove it.

I have a lot more empathy for my son now than I thought I did.

So how does this apply to my everyday life?  Most importantly, I want my kids to think of others beyond themselves.

I want them to have compassion, to have pity.  I want them to stop for a minute and use that empathy to briefly put themselves in that homeless person’s makeshift tent – to use their imagination and really feel what it’s like to shiver through the night.

But I don’t want them to lay awake at night weighed down with the hopelessness of the homeless.  I don’t want them to despair that no one will ever care or help.  I don’t want them to shed tears over every hurt they see in the world around them.  That road leads to existential despair and depression.

Instead, I want them to use small bursts of empathy to grow their sympathy.  I want them to learn compassion, to learn to consider the plight of others and go out and do something about it.

I’m happy if my kids have some measure of empathy.  I’m more concerned with developing their sympathy muscle.  Sympathy and compassion lead you to action.  And action is what it takes to help the hurting.

That may mean a life spent in service to others, or it may be me ordering nose plugs for my son so that he can swim without pain next pool season.

Action is what matters most.


But don’t offer me a Neti pot.  I might have a panic attack.



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