Sympathy vs Empathy

Men. What are the two words that often mean more to a woman than anything else? The two words that can show her how much you love and care for her. Two words that trump roses, chocolates and long walks on the beach. Two words – if said at the appropriate time and with the appropriate meaning mean you are in the clear. Two words that it’d be worth you remembering. The words are simple. “I understand”


Truth is, it’s not just women. Think we guys are the same. I know I am. I want to be understood. It matters to me that you get me, that I make sense to you. Should I care less? Possibly. Yet mutual understanding forms a significant part of our friendships and relationships. The more we understand their humour the more we can make them laugh. The more we understand what they like, the less we mess up Christmas presents. The more we understand other peoples’ pain the more we can love and support them. Let’s take that very principle and apply it to the area of mental health.


Sadly the words “I understand” are used so recklessly in our culture today. They have become conversation fillers. Or just the appropriate thing to say when someone opens up about their pain. Sometimes the basis of this so called “understanding” is so tedious. Does me having the flu mean I understand what it’s like to have cancer? Nope! Then guess what folks. You eating too much ice cream one night doesn’t mean you understand a binge eating disorder. Or you reading a newspaper article about depression doesn’t mean you  understand that hopelessness. Please stop abusing these words!


In my experience, people are desperate to say the right thing to someone struggling with mental health. Desperate to be the one who turns everything on its head with a well-timed bible verse, a witty story or something they heard on Oprah. When nothing springs to mind they tend to say “I understand” As if somehow that will make the sufferer feel much less alone. Well yes it might - if you actually understand. But gotta be honest, we tend to see through such falsity. Instead, in those instances I have felt completely misunderstood at best and like a total freak at worst.


I’ve hinted at this before. You can never understand exactly what another person feels in any given situation. No matter what pain you’ve suffered or the dark seas you’ve been drowning in- it’s just impossible!  Rather we ought to aim for empathy. That’s something we can all strive for- but it takes work!


You see empathy is not like sympathy. Sympathy is often relatively easy. It’s a feeling of pity toward someone in a less fortunate situation. Sympathy can be done from a distance. “Oh poor Mrs Jones at the end of the street, she doesn’t deserve to have lost her husband.” But empathy requires me to get of my ass, go visit Mrs Jones and see how she’s doing. Listen to her pain and how it makes her feel. Try to gauge the strain this is putting on her. And why? Simple- so I can help her in some way. Sympathy often leaves us feeling above or more fortunate than someone else. Empathy requires us to lower ourselves to try and imagine the feelings of someone else and commands us to action.


Sympathy in itself is not necessarily wrong. I should feel pity for Syrian refugees for example. Yet if it doesn’t stir me into action then it’s just sympathy. I haven’t challenged myself to be empathetic. To try and feel something of their pain and to do something to help. My concern is shallow.


Most people suffering with mental health struggles don’t want your sympathy. We don’t want to be pitied. We want your empathy. We want you to understand us. Understand that we’re not weird or selfish. We’re just struggling for one reason or another with our minds.  For a long time I was terrified to tell anyone what I was thinking. The dark thoughts I was having. I thought no-one would get it. No-one would get me. They’d label me such and such an illness or just plain hopeless. They’d pity me. Pity how far I’d fallen from my school days. Yet now I’m not scared. I want to tell people. Want them to understand me and understand more of mental illness. That way they can actually help suffering people not just pity them.

Sympathy takes approximately 5 seconds. You see someone worse off than yourself. You feel bad for them. Job done! Moral compass intact. Good deed for the day some of you might call it.


Empathy can take years. To sit down with someone many times and just listen. To be interested in what they are feeling. To read articles about their condition. To cry with them. To go home and think about them all night and what they must be going through. That’s empathy and that’s what the suffering people of this world need. They need me to care and to do something about it.


The more you know the more you understand. And the more you understand, the more you can help the suffering people of your world. Sympathy alone won’t do that. Empathy will at least begin to.

Darren Shields

Healing through Honesty

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