Mental Health 101

Empathy vs. Sympathy: Why empathy matters more

As we find ourselves faced in social justice wars and a clamour for fairness, equality, and human rights, we ask our selves: how can I be a better person for the community and the people I share this world with?

Empathy is one of the most important aspects of creating harmonious relationships, reducing stress, and enhancing emotional awareness.

Empathy is the ability to emotionally understand what other people feel, see things from their perspective, and imagine yourself in their place. It is putting yourself in someone else’s position and feeling what they must be feeling.

Empathy vs. sympathy

Empathy is often interchanged with sympathy, but while the two are related, they do not mean the same thing.

Sympathy is a shared feeling, usually of sorrow, pity, or compassion for another person. You show concern for another person when you feel sympathy for them.

For example, when someone experiences the death of a loved one, you feel sympathy towards that person. You may feel sad for them, but if you have not experienced a death in your own family, you might not have empathy for their situation.

On the other hand, empathy is stronger and deeper than sympathy. It is the ability to put yourself in the place of another and understand their feelings by identifying with them.

Why empathy is important

Without empathy, people will go about life without considering how other people feel or what they may be thinking. It becomes easy to make assumptions and jump to conclusions about others, and this often leads to misunderstandings, miscommunication, divisiveness, conflict, and fractured relationships.

Empathy encourages us to work out our differences more productively and maintain harmonious ties with people who may think and act differently from us, thereby reducing stress.

Empathizing with others also helps us regulate our own emotions. Emotional regulation is important because it allows us to manage what we are feeling, even in situations that are very upsetting, without becoming overwhelmed.

Lastly, empathy promotes helping behaviors. Not only are we more likely to engage in helpful behaviors when we feel empathy for other people, but other people are also more likely to help us when they experience empathy.

Tips for Practicing Empathy

If you would like to build your empathy skills, there are a few things that you can do:

  • Pay attention. Listen to people without interrupting. Pay attention to non-verbal cues like body language, as these can reveal what a person is really feeling.
  • Be curious. Instead of attacking someone for having a belief that is different from yours, engage in a calm, rational discussion and ask questions to find out why they think the way they do. More often than not, the answer lies in their life experience, which, while different from yours, is not wrong. Then examine your own biases and find out why you think differently from them.
  • Imagine yourself in another person’s shoes. Get out of your usual environment. Travel to new places or new environments, and mingle with the locals. Doing this will give you a new perspective of the world, and a better appreciation for others.
  • Be open to feedback. This is especially true in the workplace; don’t be afraid to receive constructive criticism from others. Humility is an important part of being an empathetic individual.

If you’re up for a challenge, try this: have a conversation with a stranger every week. It can be the security guard at your office building or the owner of the food stall where you get your lunch on weekdays. Doing this expands your worldview and improves your ability to empathize.

When we become sincere in developing understanding of others, we improve relationships and promote harmony in the community.

Written by Jac of MindNation

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