In this lesson, we’ll talk about the difference between two words that are often confused in our everyday language: sympathy and empathy. We’ll talk about how the psychologist Carl Rogers distinguished empathy from sympathy in psychotherapy.
Sympathy and Empathy
What happens when your friend is going through a hard time? Do you express sadness and hope that things get better for her soon? Do you put yourself in her shoes, sharing her feelings of distress?There might seem to be very little difference between these two responses to your friend’s situation, but these responses are actually two different emotions. When you express sincere concern about your friend and genuinely hope she feels better, you are expressing sympathy, as in the first response.
When you really try and put yourself in her position, even feeling some of her distress, you are expressing empathy, like in the second response. Think of empathy as a step above sympathy.Sympathy and empathy are important emotions in friendships, communication, and all kinds of social relationships.
Let’s talk a little bit more in depth about these now.
Psychology and Emotions
The psychologist Carl Rogers is credited with the development of humanist psychology and he wrote specifically about the importance of empathy in patient care. His approach is known as a person-centered approach. Rogers believed that expressing empathy was critical to really understanding another person. In other words, we need to do more than listen to another person.
Imagine if you’re a psychotherapist and a patient is telling you about a difficult time in his or her life. According to Carl Rogers, you don’t want to simply react to this patient’s feelings. You want to try and understand this patient’s inner world.Understanding the inner world of a client is not always an easy task. Rogers suggests that therapists need to do more than simply reflect what a patient says back to the patient. Empathy is key to really being able to do this.
It may still seem like these responses are quite similar. Let’s talk a little bit about why empathy is really important in our social relations.According to Rogers, sympathy can seem a little bit judgmental. As humans, we sometimes have a natural tendency to judge others.
So expressing sympathy can seem like saying, ‘I feel sorry for you.’ But expressing empathy feels more like, I understand what you are going through, how can I help you?’Rogers believed that empathy was important to human development and self-actualization, a term famously developed by the psychologist Abraham Maslow. This basically means meeting our full potential. In order to do that, needs like shelter and food must be met, and then things like friendship and love and personal growth come in. Rogers expanded this theory to suggest we also need empathy and understanding from others in order to reach our highest potential.
We can take this beyond emotions, as well. Imagine if you meet a person with a vastly different belief system than your own. By using empathy, you might be able to see where this person is coming from, why he or she holds this worldview, and you might not simply dismiss it as too different from your own.
Sympathy and empathy are two important human emotions that are often confused. Sympathy is an expression of awareness of another person’s distress.
We might feel sorry or sad for a friend who is having a hard time. Empathy is really putting yourself in someone else’s position and trying to feel the distress that this person feels.Carl Rogers was an important humanist psychologist who argued for the importance of using empathy in person-centered approaches to psychotherapy. Rogers felt that this allowed therapists to really understand the inner world of patients.
Empathy and sympathy seem similar and, in fact, are often confused in our everyday language. But, they are two different words with different meanings. Empathy is something we should all strive for in our interactions.