As humans, we are hardwired to respond more strongly to bad things than to good ones. It’s no surprise that we feel challenged to connect when another person confides that he or she is suffering emotionally in the wake of a devastating event. Relatively few of us handle these moments with true grace all of the time, even if we feel sympathetic to the person’s plight. Our discomfort sometimes yields to confusion: What should we say? Should we just murmur “so sorry” and leave it at that? Or should we play cheerleader and try to pep the person up?
What exactly is the right thing to do? A true empath knows the answer.
Although people often use them interchangeably, sympathy and empathy are not synonyms. Tania Singer has argued that empathy and sympathy should be regarded as separate processes, in part because each depends on different neurons and parts of the brain.
When you are sympathetic to someone, you feel for the situation he finds himself in. You understand it. This is a mental process that requires characterizing emotions and attributing them to events—“Joe’s wife has left him and he’s in pain.” Not surprisingly, it is a skill that appears not to be inborn but to be acquired with age and maturity. Sympathy doesn’t require any emotional knowledge or sense of connection, but depends largely on the vividness of the mental representation. You can feel sympathy for someone whose experience is utterly foreign to you, and which you cannot begin to imagine, but doing so is unlikely to bring tears to your eyes.
Empathy is something else. Newborns demonstrate “contagious” crying in nurseries and young children who don’t yet have the mental capacity for sympathy can show empathy. When you are empathic, you feel with a person—in a way that is more literal than not. Empathy shrinks the distance between individuals; paradoxically, sympathy often increases it. A study using MRI by Philip Jackson and colleagues showed that the same parts of the brain that were engaged when people felt physical pain were active when participants were shown photographs of physically painful experiences involving hands and feet, like a foot jammed under a door. These photographs did not include the faces of the people experiencing pain, so it wasn’t a question of responding to facial expressions. Other studies, including those conducted by Naomi Eisenberger and Ethan Kross, have also shown that physical and emotional pain are not completely distinct and utilize the same neural circuitry.
I learned an important lesson about empathy from an old friend who was fighting a particularly pernicious cancer at the same time that I was going through a difficult divorce. I felt embarrassed talking about what I was going through—my particular moment in Hell seemed so small and insignificant compared to what she faced—but she wouldn’t allow me to stay quiet. “Don’t do that,” she said firmly. “Just because my pain seems larger to you doesn’t make your pain smaller. Part of my staying alive and being human is about listening to you and understanding your feelings.”
That is empathy in action.
It’s thought that the first neural pathways that will become the conduits for empathy are established in infancy. Babies learn to read the expressions of those close to them and, through attunement, have their own emotional needs understood and responded to. Empathy appears to be an innate capacity that, nonetheless, may not be fully developed in everyone; narcissists, for example, appear to lack empathy almost entirely.
What Empaths Would Never Say
Still unsure about the distinctions between empathy and sympathy? Consider these four examples of statements you may think sound sympathetic but are, in fact, the very opposite of empathic responses. The irony here is that the speaker actually believes that what they're saying in these examples will both benefit the listener and establish a bond between them. In reality, nothing could be farther from the truth.
1. "I know exactly what you are feeling. I’ve been there, done that."
Yes, you may feel as though you are expressing solidarity with someone, but what you are doing is, one, making it about you, and, two, minimizing the uniqueness of the person’s experience. As a general rule, in a situation like this, if the first words out of your mouth begin with the pronoun “I,” the chances are excellent that you aren’t displaying empathy.
2. "It could always be worse."
You may think that this is a way of inducing perspective. It isn’t. Telling someone in pain that it’s really not so bad is undercutting and insulting. Fight the need to fill the air with words, and instead just grab a seat and listen, because that’s what true empathy looks like. No one needs to feel grateful that what happened was only a category-three hurricane and not a tsunami.
3. "Try to be positive. Maybe it was meant to be."
A true empath leaves their stash of positive-thinking magnets and memes at home. While you may think that this kind of cheerleading is exactly what someone needs to hear—"Life gave you lemons? Let’s make lemonade!"—chances are that you’re wrong. For most of us, the process of sorting out our feelings when something hurtful or destructive happens is a long one, and will need support. That support does not include people suggesting that this is a trial which will make us stronger—or any other clichés of that ilk. If, at some point, a person decides that’s how he or she wants to view the experience, that’s different.
4. "Don’t you think it’s time to move on?"
Your inner cheerleader may think this is helpful, but the emotional distance implicit in sympathy becomes fully realized with this statement suggesting that grief, mourning, or recovery come with a use-by-date stamp like perishables in the supermarket, and that “wallowing” is bad for the soul. Unless you intend to make it clear to the person that you are sick and tired of their story—and you really don’t mind losing the relationship—no one except the person suffering loss can decide when the moment is right to move on. Empathy is not judgmental.
It’s been argued that empathy conferred an evolutionary advantage to humans. Since we’re tribal creatures, empathizing with others increased our sense of commitment to the community and to those in it. Additionally, it permitted us greater understanding of not just our own feelings, but those of others. That’s just as true today—and empathy remains one of those rare qualities that bestows gifts on both the giver and the recipient.
In memory of Peggy Ann Cohen Hansen.
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Copyright © Peg Streep 2015
Singer, Tania. “The neuronal basis and ontogeny of empathy and mind reading: Review of literature and implications for future research, Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews (2006), 30, 855-863.
Jackson, Philip, Andrew N. Meltzoff, and Jean Decety, “How do we perceive the pain of others? A window into the neural processes involved in empathy,” NeuroImage 24 (2005), 771-779.
Eisenberger, Naomi, “Broken Hearts and Broken Bones: A Neural Perspective on the Similarities between Social and Physical Pain,” Current Directions in Psychological Science (2012), 21 (1), 42-47.
Kross, Ethan, Marc G. Berman et.al “Social Rejection Shares Somatosensory Representations with Physical Pain,” PNAS (2011) 108, 15, 6270-6275.
Eisenberger, Naomi, “The Pain of Social Disconnection: Examining the Shared Neural Underpinnings of Physical and Social Pain” Nature Reviews Neuroscience (2012) 13, 421-434.