Why "Feeling Bad" For Someone Isn't Enough

A few years ago, I was at my best friend’s bridal shower, and one of her bridesmaids who I never met before, struck a conversation with me:

Bridesmaid: So are you married?

Me: Does an imaginary husband count?

Bridesmaid: Oh, well are you engaged to someone at least?

Me: Does an imaginary engagement count?

Bridesmaid: lol, don’t worry my cousin is like 42 and single and she’s travelling the world and loving her life. You’ll be fine.

Me: Oh..cool, thanks?

At this point, I remember standing there being confused momentarily, as I thought, “wait, do I feel bad for her or myself or the cousin? Wait, what?”

Many times we find ourselves feeling confused/embarrassed/frustrated at people’s sympathy for our situations. Having them feeling bad for us doesn’t really change much. In this case, the bridesmaid’s sympathy towards my marital status left me feeling frustrated at so many things. Cultural norms, the awful dating scene, and the thought of perpetual loneliness.

Fast forward to 4 years later, I found myself a pretty awesome husband, no thanks to the bridesmaid’s sympathy.

Often, we are hear things like “show some sympathy” or “I should be more empathetic”. But do these mean the same thing?

The other day, I came across this really cool video explaining very clearly that empathy and sympathy are actually more different than we realize.

One phrase in the video stuck out to me in particular: “empathy fuels connection, sympathy drives disconnection”.

This short, powerful phrase made me think – why is empathy so important? How does empathy foster our relationships, as every human being tries to navigate a COVID world?

In this post, I will review:

The difference between empathy and sympathy

The benefits of being empathetic

The different kinds of empathy and ways you can be more empathetic in your daily life.

So, let’s get on with it!

Empathy vs. Sympathy

If you find yourself confused at these concepts, not to worry, I was too.

Isn’t sympathy good? Like, when something bad happens to your friend, you say something such as “oh, I feel bad for you.” That’s good, right?

The thing is, just “feeling bad” isn’t enough. It shouldn’t be the maximum we are willing to do when those around us are going through a difficult time.

Let’s break it down like this: empathy is “feeling with” someone, whereas sympathy is “feeling for” someone.

Empathy implies a deeper level of connection. Whereas sympathy suggests a level of detachment and distance.

I feel sorry for you.”

Oh, that sucks.

I’m sorry for your loss.

These are some examples of common sympathetic phrases.

Don’t feel too guilty if you’ve used sympathetic phrases before. These are phrases we all use when we're not sure what to say or do with the best of intentions in our minds. However in situations like these, empathy may be the answer.

I’m sorry for your loss. I can understand how difficult this time must be for you. What can I do to help you feel better?” is a more empathetic statement.

You’re putting yourself in the other person’s shoes, trying to understand what they’re going through and asking how you can help to alleviate some of their pain.

Like Brené Brown says in the video: empathy is a choice. And sympathy is often the first, small step you can take to show empathy.

And let’s be honest, sustained, uninterrupted empathy is exhausting and not possible. As humans, we’re not built for always being empathetic, all the time.

If you are like me, some days, we got no more empathy left to give, and those are the days we need to back up and recharge. Burn out is real, we all experience it.

In moments when we do choose to be empathetic, it will help to be mindful of doing it in a way that is actually beneficial to the people around and helps alleviate their stress.

Life is tough, as we all know it.

The Different Kinds Of Empathy

OK cool cool cool, empathy is better than sympathy because empathy makes you feel more connected to people. That’s simple and easy enough to understand. Well, let’s call it a day. This blog post is over, right?

Not yet my friend. When I started to get into the research surrounding empathy, I realized, of course, it wasn’t that simple.

It turns out that there are different kinds of empathy, and they all work together to ensure when we’re empathetic, we’re empathetic in the right ways.

The three kinds of empathy are cognitive, emotional and compassionate.

Cognitive Empathy

This is also known as “perspective-taking” and is often what we think of first when someone mentions empathy. It relates to this whole idea of “walking in someone else’s shoes”.

Cognitive empathy, as the name suggests, relies heavily on the concept of thinking and understanding what a person is going through in order to help them.

This is a particularly useful kind of empathy for people in authority (like a manager) to have, so that they relate to the experiences of their subordinates in order to help them with issues that they're facing.

As such, cognitive empathy is often associated with problem-solving because by “thinking” in a more empathetic way, you may be inclined to fix the situation for the other person. This may help them feel better, but it’s important to remember that not every person or every situation requires fixing.

Cognitive empathy is important because it allows you to understand and comprehend the situation the person is experiencing. But just understanding someone’s situation isn’t enough, we need something else.

By just being cognitively empathetic, one may come across as too detached or unemotional.

Ok so how do I do this right Sarah, you ask? Enter emotional empathy.

Emotional Empathy

In some ways, emotional empathy is the opposite of cognitive empathy. Instead of just thinking about the other person is going through, with emotional empathy, you are feeling the other person’s emotions.

Developmentally speaking, emotional empathy is a fairly basic kind of empathy, as it’s the first kind of empathy that we learn as children. Like when a mother smiles at her baby and the baby smiles back (before puking all over mom) – the baby is “feeling” and mirroring their mother’s emotions.

Emotional empathy helps us take our connection one step further by feeling with the person, and understanding their emotions by feeling those same emotions ourselves.  

It helps us connect with the people around us, and makes it easier for us to imagine how a person must be feeling in a given situation, which can help us respond in distressing situations.

The downside of emotional empathy is that you can sometimes feel too much. This may cause you to feel overwhelmed by your empathetic feelings, and become unable to respond appropriately. In this case, being mindful of your own needs and setting healthy boundaries are key in order to not drown in your own emotions when you’re empathizing with others.

Ok so, too much cognitive empathy isn’t good, and neither is too much emotional empathy. Sarah, is nothing ever good or is there a middle ground? 

Compassionate Empathy

Like many things in life (and on this blog), balance is key. And surprise, empathy is no different.

Compassionate empathy is feeling someone’s pain and taking action to help and make a difference. The type of action can vary – you can listen to the person as they share their grief, offer advice if they need it, or do something with them to make them feel better.

Compassionate empathy allows one to understand what the person is going through, you empathize with their emotions, but you are still able to strike a balance between being completely detached and being too attached while helping them deal with the situation in a compassionate manner.

As a therapist, balancing empathy is incredibly important if I want to do my job properly. Too much cognitive empathy, and I can come across as an unfeeling humanoid robot (which sounds pretty cool, but I digress).

Too much emotional empathy, and I’ll start bursting into tears at all of my appointments with clients (I have wanted to do this many times).

Balancing both of those kinds of empathy along with compassionate empathy allows me to understand my clients’ experiences, empathize with their emotional needs and support them in taking actionable steps to manage the distress.

Bring It All Together

Let’s lay out a scenario to help you understand how these kinds of empathy are all important and how they work together to make sure you can be there for the people around you.

Imagine that your friend recently lost their job due to the circumstances of COVID-19.

Starting with cognitive empathy, you think about the job they lost, how this will affect their career, and how they will manage in such a time of economic uncertainty. You try to understand the stress they must be experiencing and the ways their life will change now that they are unemployed in the middle of a pandemic. But you don’t stop here.

With emotional empathy, you try to imagine and feel what they must be feeling. Sad, confused, angry, worried – these are all possible emotions. You may recall how you felt when you experienced a similar loss in your career, or you imagine how you would feel if you were in the same position as them.

Finally, you move on to compassionate empathy, which helps you take action. It doesn’t have to be anything extreme. You may not be in a position to find your friend a new job immediately but maybe you know someone who can help. Or maybe you can offer to help them review their resumé or look for jobs. Perhaps you just listen to them vent their anger and frustration. At the bare minimum, you are there for them as they navigate this period of stress and uncertainty without being alone.

As you can see, the three types of empathy all work together to make you a more effectively empathetic person. You’re not too detached or completely overwhelmed, but at a balanced middle, where you can manage your own emotions while helping someone manage their problems.

5 Ways You Can Be More Empathetic

This blog post wouldn’t be complete without a good ol’ list. I’ve laid out some ways you try to be more empathetic in your everyday life.

Remember, empathy is a skill. No one is born perfectly empathetic. We all need to work on ourselves in order to cultivate more empathetic ways of connecting with people around us.

1. Be Aware of Your Biases & Judgments

We all have preconceived biases and judgements, both conscious and unconscious, that can interfere with our ability to fully empathize with people around us.

Being aware of these assumptions that we carry with us and working through them is crucial in order to fully understand what the other person is experiencing.

2. Listen, Ask Questions & Reflect

The key to true empathy is based on good listening skills. To understand someone’s perspective, you have to first really listen to them. Listen to what they have to say as they share their experience.

To demonstrate that you’re actively listening and care about what they’re saying, ask thoughtful, relevant questions. Take the time to reflect on what they’re saying, so that you’re actually understanding how they feel.

Showing empathy doesn’t end when the person stops talking – try to really think about how it would feel to be in their situation.

3. A Solution Isn't Always Necessary

Sometimes, we just want to fix things to make our loved ones feel better. We often try to find the best and most effective solution in order to make their problems go away. But what if things don’t need to be fixed?

It’s important to remember that empathy doesn’t have anything to do with solving someone’s problems. Yes, you can help someone find a solution but you don’t have to fix it all for them. Instead, take that energy to listen to the person.

They may be able to tell you exactly what they need, but other times, they may not. Instead, using empathy to better understand how they’re truly feeling will help you be there for them.

4. Check-In

Empathy is a core part of any relationship. And all relationships are dynamic and grow over time. Healthy relationships rely on open communication, so ask those around you how they’re feeling.

Be open to hearing about how they’re doing (especially right now, y’know, in the middle of a pandemic) and how they’re feeling.

Similarly, don’t be afraid to share how you’re feeling and give others the opportunity to show empathy towards you.

5. Practice Empathy Towards Yourself

Finally, a personal favourite tip that I always give you to you, be nice to yourself.

Showing other people empathy is often a lot easier than showing the same empathy towards yourself. Give yourself some time as you learn how to be a better, more compassionate listener. Listen to your body (muscle tension/pains), listen to the thoughts racing through your mind. Only then will you truly be able to understand and address your needs

You may need to unlearn some unconscious biases and it might be a little difficult to be more/less emotionally empathetic, but being patient towards yourself in this process is necessary so you don’t start thinking of empathy as a chore.  

Before I Go...

Lets wrap up with some much-needed real talk.

Let's face it - we're selfish creatures. As humans, we often do what we want in order to feel good. So why be empathetic? Especially if we're empathizing with other people's painful emotions?

It's a fair question. And here's the answer: we need each other. Sure, humans may be inherently selfish when it comes to our own needs. But the fact is, we need to feel connected to each other. We need to surround ourselves with friendship and love and family in order to survive.

Empathy is the key to all of that. Whether it's empathy for the bad emotions, or empathy for the good emotions, feeling with someone, putting yourself in their position as you try to help them is the best way to connect with those around you.

And you really don't need me to remind you, our environments are constantly changing. And as the environment changes, people change with it. Change can be pretty terrifying and going through change alone, feels even worse.

So check in with your loved ones. Ask them how they're doing and listen to all their feelings - good, bad and uncomfortable. Similarly, honestly share how you're feeling. We need each other (and empathy) now more than ever.

As you go forth on your journey of increased empathy, don't forget to take care of yourself. Be patient with yourself and others, and remember to show some empathy inwards as well.

I want to hear from you: how do you practice empathy in your daily life? What tips do you want to try to be more empathetic?

If you have any questions about this topic or need some additional support, flip me an email, or book an appointment with anyone from my awesome team!

Until next time!

Sarah Ahmed electronic signature

Sarah Ahmed
Co-founder
WellNest Psychotherapy Services