Barriers to empathy

Empathy is more meaningful than sympathy.

Many people confuse the words “empathy” and “sympathy.” Empathy means having the ability or willingness to understand and reflect back the feelings of another. Sympathy means to feel pity and sorrow for someone else’s misfortune.

Having the willingness to listen and seek understanding is the key to expressing empathy. When a person is hurting what they truly want is a friend who will acknowledge their pain and show that they are willing to listen and help, if needed. Empathy lets others know there are others who have had similar feelings and they are not alone. It helps people move toward resiliency. Most people clam up or shy away from people going through pain, sorrow or grief and resolve to expressing sympathy, rather than empathy.

Author, Brene Brown states that sympathy says, “I’m over here and you’re over there. I’m sorry for you and I’m sad for you. AND while I’m sorry that happened to you, let’s be clear: I’m over here.” This is not compassion. In most cases, when we give sympathy we do not reach across to understand the world as others see it.

Michigan State University Extension says that there are many barriers to developing empathy. Sometimes people seek sympathy rather than empathy. These people want people to feel sorry for them. They feel they are the only one this is happening to, or their situation is worse than anyone else’s. They are looking for someone to confirm their uniqueness. Most people deal with sympathy seekers by faking sympathy just to get away from them.

Another barrier to empathy is when others throw a “trump card” or “stack the deck,” by telling you their pain or sorrow story. If we spend our time and energy attempting to out-do one another, competing or continue telling each other “that’s nothing,” we will continue to make each other feel like nothing.

The biggest barrier to empathy is the pressure we put on ourselves to “say the perfect thing” or “to get it right.” Empathy is about listening for and acknowledging feelings, or having the willingness to understand.

Next time someone is vulnerable and shares a hard feeling, tell them you appreciate their willingness to share and be empathetic.

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