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Empathy vs. sympathy: What’s the difference?

HPRC Fitness Arena: Family & Relationships, Mind Body
Trying to “solve” people’s emotional woes might not solve anything. Learn more about the differences between sympathy and empathy.

Ever have well-meaning people tell you to shake off feelings of sadness, frustration, or disappointment? It probably didn’t help. Similarly, when someone else is hurting, especially someone you love, you might try too hard to fix it. Empathy is feeling someone else’s emotions and letting that person know you fully understand. Sympathy is observing troubling events in someone’s life and letting that person know you’re concerned.

Sympathy is sometimes useful, such as when you want to maintain boundaries or focus on the task at hand, but it’s potentially less impactful than empathy. Make a difference with PACT: Purpose, Awareness, Compassion, and Treaty.

Purpose: Is your goal to let someone know you care (sympathy: e.g., “I wish this wasn’t happening to you; maybe we should talk about something less upsetting?”), or are you aiming to connect more deeply (empathy: e.g., “It feels like maybe part of you wants to talk about this more and part of you wants to set it aside right now.”)?

Awareness: Are you “observing” the person from afar (sympathy: e.g., “I hate that you’ve been having such a hard time lately.”), or trying to see the world through their eyes (empathy: e.g., “It feels like nothing is going right lately.”)?

Compassion: You can try to understand somebody based on similar personal experiences or you can use your imagination to understand more deeply, putting yourself in the other person’s “shoes.”

Treaty: With sympathy, you might feel pulled to agree with someone (e.g., “Yup, you got kicked around.”), but that might also prevent him or her from considering alternative viewpoints. With empathy, you can tune into how somebody feels without necessarily agreeing with that person (e.g., “You feel abused, and it’s hard not to feel like a victim right now.”).

Try PACT daily and decide what’s helpful: empathy or sympathy.

Deploying psychological first aid

HPRC Fitness Arena: Total Force Fitness
Experiencing an emergency or a crisis can be disturbing. Learn how you can help by providing psychological first aid following a disaster.

Individuals involved in disasters and terrorist attacks often experience psychological trauma that needs both immediate and ongoing attention. In addition to getting medical first-aid to individuals, responders can also help administer psychological first aid (PFA). A few features from the VA’s Psychological First Aid: Field Operations Guide are:

  • Ensure safety first. Physical needs (medical attention, food, and shelter) take priority. Before you begin PFA, assess whether these other needs have been taken care of. Remember to communicate clearly and be compassionate and polite as you come into contact with survivors.
  • Stay calm and spread calm. Be patient and pay attention to survivors, who are often in emotional distress, as they convey their story. If they express confusion, reassure them that their behavior is a natural response to the circumstances and offer healthy ways to cope with it. And make sure that your own emotional and physical reactions are not making the situation worse.
  • Connect with others. Help survivors connect with friends, family members, and other people who can support them. Relationships are invaluable to survivors during traumatic events.
  • Encourage hope. Help calm fears or worries about the future by reminding survivors that help is on the way and will continue to be available in the future as they recover.

For more information, see the “dos” and “don’ts” in this fact sheet from the Center for the Study of Traumatic Stress. Also, download the free PFA mobile app, which supplements the PFA Field Operations Guide to help you administer psychological first aid in the field. Online training and videos are also available; see links on the web page linked above. For more information on healthy ways to cope, check out HPRC’s Mind Tactics domain.

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