There is a new cool trend: to celebrate being an empath. To show empathy, not sympathy. What is the difference between empathy and sympathy? You show sympathy FOR another person; you are sad that they are suffering, but you do not share their suffering. When you empathize WITH another person, you metaphorically put yourself in their shoes and share their pain.

Here is a great little video to illustrate the difference:

If you prefer a more academic approach:

And some practical advice:

Since sympathy is a little more distant, it can come across as somewhat condescending — “oh, you poor creature”. Empathy, by contrast, says “oh, that sucks!” — probably a more therapeutic response for the afflicted person.  But that difference is not what this blog entry is about.

There is a navel-gazing aspect to some of these posts that I find disturbing.

From that last:


Ask yourself:

  • Have I been labeled as “too emotional” or overly sensitive?
  • If a friend is distraught, do I start feeling it too?
  • Are my feelings easily hurt?
  • Am I emotionally drained by crowds, require time alone to revive?
  • Do my nerves get frayed by noise, smells, or excessive talk?
  • Do I prefer taking my own car places so that I can leave when I please?
  • Do I overeat to cope with emotional stress?
  • Am I afraid of becoming engulfed by intimate relationships?

Now, to me, these questions do not point to empathy. They more indicate sensitivity – especially, over-sensitivity. Instead of just being able to identify with what someone else is going through, it seems as if the self-identified ’empath’ co-opts someone else’s feelings, and makes it all about them.

Before we can move on to bigger things, such as helping others, we need to confront the challenge of really knowing, loving, embracing, and fully accepting ourselves as we are.

– from the EmpathConnection website

Yes, a cardinal rule for an emergency worker is to make sure that you are safe yourself; you can’t help a drowning person by diving in and allowing yourself to be pulled down and drowned yourself. But – in these descriptions, it seems that instead of tossing a line to the drowning person, the ’empath’ says “ooh that person is drowning. How horrible. I better take swim lessons”.  The person actually doing the suffering is no longer relevant.

Maybe I’m just being curmudgeonly, but this does not seem to me to be a trait to celebrate.


2 thoughts on “Misfortune

  1. There is a huge difference between empathy and sympathy, and for those who know about psychology, the difference is within the personality formed throughout childhood and adolescence.
    If you don’t have empathy, you cannot understand it, full stop.
    Most people only know, what they personally experience themselves.
    Empathy and being an empath, is actually rare, and it isn’t about self, but being an empath can be painful, because the pain of someone else’s suffering, is felt by the empathy.
    I have considerable empathy, and can put myself in the shoes of someone who is experiencing something different to my own life, and see life through their eyes, their hearts.
    Not many can do this in life. My husband can’t. And that’s okay, because we are all different and he is a police officer and could not be an empathy and do that job.
    But, it is always easier to dismiss, minimize, or trivialise what is not known.
    Don’t knock empaths, or people with real empathy – they often go on to do considerable compassionate acts in this world.
    People with sympathy, mostly don’t.

  2. That’s very true, and as you say, the distinction between sympathy and empathy is enormous. And as you also say, true empaths are rare.

    What disturbs me, and the reason I wrote this entry, is that a lot of people who used to be called “emo” are now calling themselves empaths. It seems to be a trendy designation. Emo is not the same as empathy, and I fear that true empathy runs the danger of being misunderstood.

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