Monday, July 15, 2013

Is Sympathy different than Empathy? And Does it Matter?

This past year I had a student who, while working on the empathy protocols I mentioned in an earlier blog post, got me thinking about whether sympathy was different than empathy. And then, of course, whether the distinction between the two concepts was just a matter of semantics and, then, did it matter if there was a difference?

Emily (a composite person) was remarkably good at connecting with other students on a multitude of levels. She was one of those students who truly wants to be kind to other people, and who practices hard at making groups feel good about themselves. In the group self-assessments at the end of each project at CITYterm, she was one of the people who received high praise for making the group congenial and upbeat. She was a cheerleader, to be sure, in that she gave the groups she was part of a greater energy and spirit to help them complete their task. But she had other qualities as well that led her to be quite sensitive to the emotional reactions that other students had to stress and conflict.

What was intriguing was that when we began to practice empathy through the use of protocols, Emily was very unenthusiastic, resistant and surprisingly uncomfortable. I had (wrongly) guessed that she would embrace the protocols because they were designed to gain understanding in ways that were not your typical rational, analytic, lit-crit kind of reading that schools and particularly Advanced Placement English classes specialize in. I anticipated that accessing a more emotional technique would be helpful to her in ways that I documented with other students in an earlier blog post.

Emily and I spent a good deal of time trying to figure out why practicing empathy made her feel so ill at ease and anxious. And I think we came to a couple of realizations as a result that were helpful to her and revelatory to me.

Emily was particularly good at feeling and expressing sympathy. Sympathy, etymologically, is the act of having "fellow feelings" or of joining a "community of feelings." Literally, it is "feeling together." This is, in fact, what Emily was so good at--helping to create a community of feeling that bonds people together. She cared about how other people were feeling, and she was brave enough to put forth how she was feeling as a starting point of connection.

There are lots of examples of different communities of feeling coming together. Sympathy means that you acknowledge that people feel a certain way and that you feel bad for them, and that you care about the fact they are feeling this way. The other person is in a difficult place and you are acknowledging it--it is literally "feeling sorrow or pity for someone else's misfortune." The brilliant Broadway musical Ave Q, for example, contained a hilarious song about how to build a community around a common idea-- "it sucks to be me." It is worth listening to; it will make you laugh.

Ave Q flips this idea on its head as well by having those same characters admit to a secret Schadenfreude. Schadenfreude (depicted hilariously in another song from Ave Q) is "feeling joy at the damage done to someone else" or "pleasure at the misfortune of others." I sometimes wonder whether or not sympathy and schadenfreude are just flip sides of each other. When the better angels of our nature are at work we are sympathetic, but other times we are less generous.

Two of the stories that we used to practice empathy were Junot Diaz's "How to Date a Brown Girl, Black Girl, White Girl or Halfie" and Bernard Malamud's "Angel Levine."  The protagonist in the first is a Dominican-American adolescent male, in the latter it is an aging Jewish man. The first is sometimes aggressively dislikeable, the second more pitiable. I wondered if the fact that these characters lived lives very far from my and Emily's own experiences made it difficult to find ways to connect to them or their situations. Can you feel connection to, or compassion for, people whose lives are unimaginable, who appear hard to know from your perspective? What if you don't know them at all, can you develop skills to be able to imagine what this different life is, what this alien person feels? What I realized from reading these stories with Emily is that having the ability to be sympathetic (as Emily demonstrated consistently in her day-to-day life) is one skill that is important as a reader of books and of life, but that empathy is different skill that may have to be acquired in a different manner for some people. It seems that sympathy and empathy are closely related--kind of a sister act--but that for all their similarities in terms of expressing connection to other people there may be important distinctions.

Empathy, it turns out, is a surprisingly new word, having come into existence in 1858 thanks to German philosopher Hermann Lotze who was trying to explain how the appreciation of art depends on the viewer's ability to project his personality into the viewed object. It was then adopted (or translated) into a psychological term by Edward Bradford Titchner in 1909.  For Titchner, sympathy might be described as a "feeling with" someone, empathy is a "feeling one's way into." For example, Emily could have compassion for these characters, but she was quite unsure whether she could feel their actual feelings. In other words, Emily could feel sympathy for the characters, but projecting herself into either of the characters lives and experiencing those sensations was, as she said, "difficult, uncomfortable and potentially inaccurate." It was this last phrase--"potentially inaccurate"-- that actually gave us the clue that unlocked the reason for why Emily was so comfortable with expressions of sympathy, but blanched at the idea of trying to be empathetic. Exploring that reason--her profound discomfort with "not knowing"-- will be the subject of the next blog post.

For me, I was left to ponder how sympathy and empathy might both be used to form deep bonds of connections amongst people, but why one might be more accessible at certain times and in certain conditions. And, of course, to be thankful and grateful that I get to learn things like this from working with my students.


  1. David: you might be interested in reading Eric Kandel's, The Age of Insight: The Quest to Understand the Unconscious in Art, Mind, and Brain. He discusses the biological basis of empathy extensively and the role it plays in our ability to understand art and literature.
    John Nordquist

  2. john !!

    thanks so much....i have heard of this dread some things of his...i think siri and i were talking about him one time...does he get involved with all the mirror neurons and stuff...i have read about that...not my field...but interesting as a basis...i just want to know how it operates in real time with students...i will get this book...thanks