I know just how you feel. I understand. I know what you are going through. Just some of the phrases you will hear people use when they are trying to offer sympathy to a person who is going through something tragic, emotionally upsetting, or mourning the death of a loved one.
All those words are said with good intentions, and the recipient knows that there is good intent in the giving of them. Have you ever considered that the recipient may be thinking “you haven’t a clue” and that they may be right? Do you really feel the way they do, or are you making an incorrect perception?
I think people tend to mesh sympathy and empathy together into one emotion, when in fact they are two very different things, and the way an expression of sympathy or compassion is worded can mean all the difference.
When you offer your sympathy to someone, you are showing feelings of pity or sorrow for their misfortune. This can be illness, death, an unfortunate event, bad luck…anything. Sympathy is something that can be offered or felt for anyone in any situation. You don’t have to know what that person is going through, only that you understand it is a difficult time for them and you express an acknowledgement of their situation. I am sorry for your loss; I am so sorry to hear that; I’m sorry things didn’t work out the way you planned. This is a genuine expression of caring that someone else is enduring an unpleasant event or time in their lives.
Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another person from within the other person’s frame of reference. It is literally the ability to place yourself in their position and feel what they are feeling. To feel empathy you really need to have experienced the same type if incident, not something similar.
You can feel sympathy for a person that has had a miscarriage, but unless you have had one yourself you cannot truly empathize with what they are feeling. The same holds true for the loss of a child, loss of a parent, loss of a spouse, or any other type of situation such as loss of income, foreclosure on a home, life-altering injury, etc. The list is never ending but the point is, you may have experienced something so similar but unless it is a truly comparable event you can feel sympathy, not empathy.
Having been on the receiving end of both sympathy and misplaced empathy, I know that while I can appreciate the good intentions of the giver, my internal reaction was different. Anyone who has experienced that difference can most likely relate to what I am saying and it makes you more aware of how you phrase things when expressing your concerns to others.
When people learned that we lost two grandchildren to CPS/DHS and adoption by strangers, unless someone had undergone that same type of incident they had no idea what it feels like. The best comments were shock and an honest phrase of “how do you cope?” That showed concern and an interest in understanding what we were going through emotionally, people where expressing sympathy. I did have one woman, a stranger, call me on the phone as she was fighting to get her grandchild back that had been taken by CPS and there was fear it would be adopted to strangers. In that situation we were each able to feel the other person’s fears, pain, loss…that is empathy.
When my husband lost his battle with cancer I had many people contact me. Again the intentions were good, but people did fumble in the sympathy v. empathy area. People who offered support at having lost a loved one to cancer and knew what the stages were showed empathy for what we were going through with regards to the disease and it was genuine. Those who hadn’t personally dealt with the disease could offer sympathy, but unless you have lived with someone who is undertaking treatments, you really don’t know what it is like, and even at that each case is different.
Where people fumbled and meshed the sympathy and empathy was after my husband had passed. There were quite a few people who compared my loss of my husband of 34 years with their loss of a parent, sibling, friend, or child. While they genuinely felt loss of a loved one, each of those losses are different as the dynamics of each relationship is different. I don’t know how many times I thanked people for their expressions of sympathy while in my mind thinking “you don’t have a clue” because the loss of a friend, parent, etc. is vastly different from the loss of a spouse.
How do you know if you are feeling sympathy or empathy? Empathy is real, it is a re-living of the event you experienced. You can physically feel the other person’s pain. A couple days ago I found out that someone who has the same type of cancer as Ron had, who was diagnosed a month after Ron and the two men were frequently at chemo together, has only days left before he looses his battle with the disease as well. His wife private-messaged me to let me know what was going on. I private messaged her back with my thoughts, feelings on what she was going through. How do I know I was feeling empathy? Because when I got the news I sat there and cried. I felt weight compressing my chest, I felt the pain of the day we received that same news about Ron. I was reliving the physical and emotional moment when I got the same news that she had received. I could truly feel her pain, her emotional upheaval. That is empathy.
This writing is not to criticize anyone for having blundered in the sympathy v. empathy realm, but to make you aware of the fact that how you express your feelings can change their impact for the better. Something as simple as removing the words “I know how you feel” and replacing them with “I can’t imagine how you must feel” can change the impact of your statement tremendously. Keep in mind that if you are in a position to feel empathy, than by all means express it. Keep your comments within the appropriate context to make them more genuine.