Empathy - Woman on a walk with elderly woman in wheelchair through grass field

Do you know the difference between empathy and sympathy?

According to Dr. Brene Brown, sympathy is to see someone in a deep hole, but remaining on higher ground and talking to them from above and trying to put a silver lining on their situation instead of acknowledging their pain. Empathy is acknowledging a person’s feelings, climbing down into the hole with them, sitting beside them and sincerely connecting with them. You recognize their struggle without minimizing it.

Simply put she says “Empathy is simply listening, holding space, withholding judgment, emotionally connecting, and communicating that incredibly healing message of you’re not alone.”

According to psychologists Daniel Goleman and Paul Ekman, there are three components of empathy: cognitive, emotional, and compassionate. Cognitive: simply knowing how the other person feels and what they might be thinking. Imagining yourself in their shoes. Emotional: you feel along with the person, almost as their feelings are contagious. Compassionate: you not only understand and feel for the person, but you are moved to help if needed.

So why am I taking the time to share all of this with you? Simply this – we are becoming a society without empathy. We cannot see another person’s pain, perspective or share their sentiments. Empathy does not come naturally for many people, and you must practice empathy, but the more you do, the easier it becomes. Without empathy, we end up with everyone only being able to see their own point of view and unable to understand/feel for someone else. Empathy can also allow us to feel vicariously happy sharing the joy of others. Feeling heard and understood, and being able to do both, is a human need.

What do we do? The old saying… putting yourself in someone else’s shoes is a good place to start.

Why does someone feel so strongly about a particular subject? You need to look at how others live, read books about people with different backgrounds, volunteer at local shelters, Meals on Wheels or some other community-based programs. Listen fully, don’t try and fix their problem and although you might not have experienced what is happening to them, try and imagine if you did.

Finally, acknowledge your biases which are usually centered around race, gender, age or other visible features. They can curb our ability to empathize with others as they cause false perceptions, and they make us less able to empathize with people from different backgrounds or experiences. Once you become more aware of your unconscious biases, you become more aware of yourself and others … creating empathy.

“The quality I would most like to magnify is empathy. It brings us together in a peaceful, loving state.” – Stephen Hawking.

Rita Hagen, Executive Director
Published November 12, 2022 in the Kenosha News

The True Meaning of Empathy by Rita Hagen, Hospice Alliance's Executive Director