The Heatley Cliff Are You Empathetic Or Sympathetic? Amy Foster


For many years now, I have always thought that my ability to sympathize was one of my better qualities. I have maintained this idea that although I am not always the sweetest person, I am a good one. I might not be the kindest soul, but I am generous, sometimes to a fault. There is a hardness to me, I know, a blunt sharpness that has been cultivated by a stormy childhood and an overall pervasive feeling that I was never good enough. Good, as my father drummed into me over the years, is the enemy of great.

Thank God for Brene Brown. If you don’t know her, you should. She is one the world’s leading experts on shame and empathy. She is a master TED Talk giver and a best selling author. My favorite book of hers is The Gifts Of ImperfectionLet Go Of Who You Are Supposed To Be And Embrace Who You Are. The above clip is an animated short narrated by Brene which describes the difference between empathy and sympathy. It’s only a couple minutes long, but I promise, well worth the time investment.

Brown asserts that empathy creates connection and sympathy drives disconnection. To be sympathetic is to silver line a bad situation. A sympathetic person is a fixer. A sympathetic person says, “Wow, how crappy to be going through (insert cataclsymic life shift here) – you should should definitely try doing XYZ.” A sympathetic person distances themselves from the other’s problems, not to be a jerk, but rather to be objective. I have been guilty of this. I don’t know why, but I really thought that objectivity was something that a person I loved or cared about would want from me when they were going through the thick of it. Nope.

Empathy creates connection. In order to be truly empathetic with another, you must connect to something painful inside of you, some place dark and scary. When you connect with this scary, dark place, you know that there is nothing you can that say will fix the problem. You aren’t even supposed to say anything. An empathetic person listens. An empathetic person acknowledges how hard it might be for the other person to talk about this terrible thing and is grateful they are sharing it. An empathetic person comforts by not making it about them and their brilliant ability to solve a problem. An empathetic person is just there, period.

I am working hard on this skill. Forget losing weight or working out or being more organized or eating more vegetables. My New Year’s resolution is to be more empathetic. It doesn’t seem easier than those other, more typical resolutions, but it does seem far more important. I want to be more connected to the people I love, especially when they need me most. Don’t you?

On a side note, our podcast this week does not deal with this issue but it is fun and informative in its own way. The Heatley Cliff around the holidays is always entertaining.

Short Films via RSA Shorts


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  1. It’s interesting that you say ‘My New Year’s resolution is to be more empathetic.’ I think that’s a nice thing to say, but a more realistic goal would be ‘My New Year’s resolution is to listen more,’ or ‘to be a shoulder to cry on.’ I think having empathy takes time and if part of your personality is that you are naturally a ‘fixer,’ you can’t automatically change that. All you can do is be more aware of it and make a conscious effort to take the little steps toward showing empathy to others. Like the article said, it does take a lot out of you, too. You have to connect it to something you’ve likely buried deep inside and it is not always easy to bring all of that up to the surface without professional help.
    Thanks for the article and for pointing out the differences. I have often wondered what exactly they were.

  2. Amy, what an interesting article! That’s something I’ve never thought about – the distinction. I’m usually sympathetic, I guess, because I have this compulsion to help people, not in an I’m-a-saint way, but more out of a need to feel that I am useful to someone [insert self issues here]. Anyway. I often hear myself talking to comfort the ‘sufferer’ and realize how meaningless those oversaid words are. “It’s going to be OK”. Does anyone even believe that still? Although, sometimes that nonsense does help.
    I suppose being empathetic means you are a better friend, because it’s more consuming. It’s consuming to share someone’s burden. To shut up and shut yourself completely out, and make everything, everything about the other person and their worries and sadness and pain. Once you get in someone’s skin, you can no longer separate yourself from it. You worry and you’re sad and you’re in pain with them. I suppose it helps to have someone connecting with you like that, when you’re at your worst, to have someone actually make that effort to connect with you like that.
    In my country, we have a proverb that goes “A joy shared is double the joy; a pain shared is half the pain.”