Tag Archives: appropriate use of words

Empathy, Sympathy, and Apathy walk into a bar…


…It took a moment to get the feel of the place.

Three words, all with similar word origins and roots, but oh the difference. People throw words around these days with little regard of what is really going on behind them.

For most people it is those first two words that they get all tangled up. As a therapist, empathy is one of the tools of the trade, but too many in the field confuse sympathy with empathy. Too many clients expect sympathy and don’t understand when they get empathy… and vice versa. I can understand the confusion, honestly. It’s all about definitions. Empathy has one, but sympathy has two… and that second definition is just close enough to empathy to create the difficulty.

Before we drop down that rabbit hole, let’s take a look at where all these words came from…

Well, that’s simple. Greek. Pathos. The word that literally means emotion and feeling. What becomes important then is the prefix added to it. The ’em’ from empathy literally means ‘in.’ So, empathy becomes ‘in feeling.’ The ‘sym’ of sympathy actually comes from a different prefix ‘sun’ meaning ‘with.’ Sympathy is actually ‘with feeling.’ (For like two seconds I wanted to say “Once more…”) You see the difference? Maybe not… I’ll ramble on a bit further.

You see, I’ve actually been playing around with this post or the concept of it for a while. Observing various roles of the health and mental health fields, you garner a lot of information about how different people approach interactions with patients (clients, consumers, members… whatever the title for the people who need care). I’ve watched fledgling therapists, social workers, psychologists, and counselors struggle with the concept of empathy. I’ve seen nurses and doctors approach bedside manner with a sledgehammer draped in sympathetic camouflage. It is meant to convey to a patient that the provider cares about what is going on with them, but what ends up actually occurring is a sense of pity. That the provider maybe feels sorry for them… even if they really don’t.

So, why is that even a problem? Well, as I heard it said very well recently, the difference between empathy and sympathy is that empathy draws people together and sympathy distances people from each other.

To have empathy for a person, you have to actually let your guard down. You have to let your self actually feel or experience some part of what the other is feeling. You have to get into their feelings with them. “But how can I do that if I’ve never experienced what they have?” Well… that’s the trick about empathy. You don’t have to experience the exact same circumstances to recognize pain, sadness, or even joy and happiness. You can go to your own chest of emotional memories and realize that it might be something like what that other person is feeling. Why is that hard? Well, it makes us vulnerable. It creates a sense of shared experience that can almost be intimate (No, not sexual, pull your mind out of the gutter). I mean that exposing rawness of emotion to anyone and becoming vulnerable, even for a little while can be just a little scary.

So, what is wrong with sympathy? It’s the right thing to do, isn’t it? We send sympathy cards, and we express our sympathy… It isn’t really that it is wrong, but when sympathy is offered, it is from the outside looking in or from the sidelines. It is me standing over here well apart from you and what you are going through and saying “I’m sorry,” but without being there with you or providing any other support. So, instead it can come across more as “Wow, sucks to be you. Glad I’m way over here.” Sympathy often accompanies the strong urge to “fix it” as well, and while there may be opportunities for solution-focused approaches, this isn’t generally what is needed immediately… and definitely not from someone who hasn’t shown an understanding for what is happening. The jump to solving a problem without understanding just feels like dismissal to someone in pain. It can feel like the equivalent of a person on a luxury yacht coming along side a person treading water trying not to drown and critiquing their technique from the boatdeck. It doesn’t really help and highlights the differences between you.

Not everyone can get to a place of empathy. It just isn’t in their wheelhouse. Most people today are so stuck in their own heads they are blind to the emotions of others around them, even those near and dear. Sometimes, sympathy is a good enough approximation if it is given with authenticity and without the “Mr. Fix-it” approach. This is where that other definition comes into the picture. Symppathy can also mean a common understanding between people. Sounds a lot like how empathy was defined. The subtle difference is the lack of emotional content. While empathy feels with the person, sympathy sorta intellectually acknowledges understanding of what they are going through. It’s subtle, but the difference is there, but again, sometimes that is all you can muster, and that is ok. Certainly it is better than apathy… and so we come to the mean girl (or douchebag) of the trio.

This one’s etymology should be pretty easy for most: “A-“, when not performing as the initial letter of the alphabet or a guest star on Sesame Street, means “not” or “without” in Greek. So, a- plus pathos is “without feeling.” Being apathetic means you don’t care. Now, I misspoke saying it is the mean girl or douchebag implying it is somehow entirely negative. That really isn’t true. You can have no strong feeling about something without that being a particularly bad thing. However, in our modern, hyperbolic, social-media (and media in general) fueled society, apathy has come to mean something very negative. It has come to represent people who would stand by and watch while others are violated. It has come to mean people who let injustice reign out of the “Meh, it doesn’t really matter to me” attitude. Or it is a symptom of depression and other mental disorders… no, literally, it is a descriptor of affect that is sometimes found on mental status exams. The word is often used when we want to illustrate someone that has “given up.” Apathy has become associated with defeat or disinterest… or worse yet a dismissal and dislike of something (or someone) to the point of “not caring” if it (they) cease to exist. That, honestly, is taking apathy to a way more active level than the word originally started out to be. But are we just giving poor apathy a bad rep? Do we really need to have heightened passions about every blessed thing and in every circumstance? Honestly, I’m not sure. I think that we’ve come too far in the evolution of vocabulary to start changing anyone’s mind about it now, but I think that we need to be more specific when we say “I don’t really have feelings one way or another,” and make sure that we don’t mean “I actually have very strong feelings about that in a negative way and I wish you would shut up about it.”

And… that pretty much covers our three friends walking into a bar. Maybe some of you (or most of you) already understood the difference. Maybe you are apathetic to the whole issue. Maybe you can empathize or at least share some sympathy for my irritation when people misuse the words. Hopefully you won’t get them confused if you run into them at that bar.