What is empathy?
Empathy is not…
Although the terms empathy and sympathy appear in similar contexts, they do not have the same meaning. This might seem obvious, but are you able to articulate the difference between empathy and sympathy? What actions and words represent empathy versus sympathy? And how is empathy different from compassion?
Dr. Brené Brown further distinguishes between empathy and sympathy by noting that “empathy fuels connection, [while] sympathy drives disconnection”. Empathy is “I feel with you”, whereas sympathy is “I feel bad for you”. Brené argues that empathy is a choice and that it’s a vulnerable choice because, to feel empathy, you need to recall, reflect on, and connect with uncomfortable feelings. When you are unable to make yourself vulnerable, you struggle to connect with others. Your own discomfort with the emotions that another person is expressing results in a sympathetic expression of pity that makes people feel even lonelier than before. In her short animation, Brené Brown offers one of the clearest explanations of empathy versus sympathy:
Empathy is also different from compassion, which literally means “to suffer together”. While compassion involves understanding and feeling another person’s emotions, it also elicits a desire to help. Although there is a time and place for compassion, it can become exhausting to take on another person’s emotional burden (i.e. compassion fatigue).
What is an empathy miss?
What are the functions and benefits of feeling empathy?
Where can I learn more?
What will students learn?
By the end of this lesson students will be able to…
- Distinguish between empathy, sympathy, and compassion
- Verbalize their preferred method for demonstrating and receiving empathy
- Identify empathy misses and circle back
Brown, B. (2012). Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead. Avery.
Brown, B. (2018). Dare to Lead: Brave Work, Tough Conversations, Whole Hearts. Random House.
Brown, B. (2019, August). Empathy. Brené Brown #daringclassrooms Hub.
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de Waal, F. (2008). Putting the altruism back into altruism: the evolution of empathy. Annual Review of Psychology, 59.
Greater Good Science Centre. (n.d.). What is Compassion? Greater Good Magazine.
Krznaric, R. (2012, November 27). Six Habits of Highly Empathetic People. Greater Good Magazine.
Lanzoni, S. (2015, October 15). A Short History of Empathy. The Atlantic.
Merriam-Webster. (n.d.a). Empathy. Merriam-Webster.com dictionary.
Merriam-Webster. (n.d.b). What’s the difference between sympathy and empathy? Merriam-Webster.com dictionary. undefined
Rumble, A., Van Lange, P., & Parks, C. (2010). The benefits of empathy: When empathy may sustain cooperation in social dilemmas. European Journal of Social Psychology, 40(5), 856–866. undefined
Turgoose, D., Glover, N., Barker, C., Maddox, L., & Turgoose, D. (2017). Empathy, compassion fatigue, and burnout in police officers working with rape victims. Traumatology, 23(2), 205–213.
Wiseman, T. (1996). A concept analysis of empathy. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 23(6), 1162–1167. undefined