Sympathy has become a sort of bad word these days. Empathy has become the end-all-be-all form of caring. The differences between the two concepts can be quite confusing. Worse still, there is no common accepted definition for the two words. Depending on the source, the definition for sympathy can be the same as that for empathy. Sometimes the definitions will flip-flop depending on the source.

We make the distinction between the two terms for an important reason. Empathy, according to modern convention, is a more genuine form of caring. In empathy, the person demonstrates caring by feeling what the other person feels.

This Article Contains:

What is empathy? Brene Brown Short
What is the process of caring?
What are hidden messages in communication?
What is the hidden message of empathy?
What are the hidden messages of sympathy?
How to be more clear in your messaging.
Managing conflicting emotions
The limits of empathy

What is empathy?

See the short video below:

The process of caring

I like to keep things as simple as possible. But we have to break it down.

When someone expresses hurt, the other person will feel something. Compassion (or simply caring) is the common emotion. Compassion is the feeling we get when we internalize the other person’s pain. We bring their sadness or suffering inside us. We sample it inside our minds. We don’t have control over this process of compassion. We either feel compassion for the other person or we don’t. We don’t control the degree. We don’t control other feelings also competing for our attention. None of these things are within our control, at least not at first. They all operate within the processes of our subconscious. Over time, we can influence how we feel, but we still don’t control it.

Our instinctive response to feeling compassion, the sampling of someone else’s pain, is to send a return message back to the other person. “I hear you and I care about you.” When they receive this message, they will feel something in response. If they receive the message clearly, they will feel heard and cared for.

So, what’s going on with sympathy and empathy?

Empathy and sympathy are behaviors of communication. They are different ways of communicating back the message: “I hear you and I care about you.” Empathy and sympathy are both bridging behaviors. They are intended to communicate connection to the other person.

But they do more than that. Even though they are also intended to communicate, “I care about you,” they end up communicating something more. There is a hidden message.

Hidden messages in communication

Communication is never as simple as the words we express. Nonverbal communication includes all kinds of hidden messages from our subconscious.

Part of being genuine is eliminating hidden messages. Or at least making sure that hidden messages and intended messages are congruent with one another. Being genuine is all about being upfront about what you truly intend to communicate. Empathy is genuine. Sympathy is not. Sympathy contains mixed, conflicting messages. Worse, the person expressing sympathy lacks awareness of these hidden messages. Let’s take a look.

The hidden message of empathy

Here is the intended message of empathy: “I hear you and I care about you.”

Here is the hidden message of empathy: “I am open to receiving your feelings and feeling what you feel.”

This hidden message is straightforward and implied. It is congruent with intended message, which is why empathy is considered genuine.

The hidden messages of sympathy

Now let’s look at sympathy. There are many possible hidden messages that people inadvertently attach when communicating using sympathy. These messages ride alongside the intended message. They are carried by a person’s tone of voice, facial expressions, and other nonverbal cues. Wording also matters, as we saw in the video above.

The intended message of sympathy is the same: “I hear you and I care about you.”

Here are some possible hidden messages that ride alongside the intended message. Let’s first look at communicating lack of availability:

  • “I don’t have enough time to meet your needs right now.”
  • “I can only give you part of my attention right now.”
  • “I only have so much of myself to can give you right now.”
  • “I don’t want to feel what you’re feeling right now.” or “I’m glad I’m not the one feeling that way.”

Next, let’s look at communicating dismissal:

  • “I would like to dismiss your problem with a quick-fix.” or “I would like to dismiss your problem with a few token words.”
  • “Your problem really isn’t that important.” or “You’re overreacting.”
  • “You’re bothering me with this right now. I don’t like it. Please stop.”

Next, let’s look at communicating arrogance:

  • “I know exactly how to solve your problem. You should do this. In fact, I’m surprised you didn’t already think of that.”

Finally, let’s look at communicating that one lacks the ability to make the other person feel heard and cared for. In other words, a hidden message of incompetency.

  • I am not a good listener.
  • “I lack the personal abilities to meet your needs right now.” or “I do not know how to adequately express my feelings of caring through my behavior.” or “I don’t know how to make you feel cared for.”
  • “I lack the ability to make you feel better.”
  • “I don’t know how to solve your problem.” Paradoxically, the very act of trying to solve the person’s problem directly through fixing is actually communicating the hidden message, “I don’t know how to solve your problem.”
  • “I don’t understand your issue.”

Instead of sympathy, try being more clear in your messaging

Here we see that sympathy can communicate one of these things: lack of availability, dismissal, arrogance, or personal incompetency. To be genuine, I would recommend practicing the following.

  • If you lack availability to help at that moment, simply communicate that directly and clearly. For example, “I can see that you’re hurting. I’m really stressed out at the moment also. I can’t help you right now, and I’m sorry about that. Can we talk about this later tonight?”
  • If you lack competency, please also communicate that clearly. “I can tell that you’re suffering. I don’t know how I can help. Please tell me what I can do. If you can’t think of anything, then please just tell me more about what happened. Or if you prefer, we can just sit here and be sad together for a bit.” The hidden message here is one of humility, which goes a long way to making someone feel heard and cared for.
  • If you are feeling arrogant or feeling like dismissing the other person’s issue, instead of communicating this, consider looking inward at yourself. Why are you feeling this way? What do you value about the relationship?

Conflicting emotions

It is very common to insert hidden messages in communication. So far, I have only provided common examples, not an exhaustive list of possible hidden messages. The number of different types of hidden messages is only limited by a person’s imagination.

It is human to have different emotions compete to be the one that drives our behavioral response. For instance, a person could be feeling compassion. But they could also, at the same time, be feeling angry, anxious, happy, or something else. When we experience these conflicting emotions, we are forced to make a choice. Our behavior–the message we send back–will reflect the emotions we insert into it. Consider verbalizing these competing emotions to the other person:

“I feel sorry for you getting hurt. I care for you. But I’m also angry.” It is at this point that the speaker has a genuine choice. They can focus on the caring and listening, they can focus on expressing their anger, or they can pause and create space for more self-reflection.

The limits of empathy

All values can become weaponized. Empathy is no exception. There are many ways to weaponize empathy. The most straightforward way is by attacking another person’s identity by saying that they lack it. However, most of the time, empathy is weaponized in a more underhanded type of way.

The most common way to misuse empathy is to wield it, bluntly, as a weapon to attack another competing, legitimate value. For instance, consider the exchange:

“Can’t you see that I need your empathy in this moment?” Partner’s response: “Can’t you see that I’m paralyzed by my own panic attack right now?”

In this exchange, one person is demanding empathy. The other person is experiencing anxiety, which is causing them to go into a self-protective mode, which makes it very difficult to express empathy. Or try this one:

“You don’t care about me.” Response: “Yeah, well you don’t respect me.”

Here both people are attacking each other with their weaponized values: respect and empathy.

A demand for excess, unfettered empathy is highly problematic. Empathy must be balanced by other important values. Because it is a bridging value, it typically needs an effective boundary. People in health care fields who express strong empathic behavior and lack appropriate personal boundaries will inevitably cycle towards burnout. Burnout is a process of negative cycling. In essence, they care too much about others and lack the ability to care for themselves.

Next: expressing empathy through Active Listening.