Empathy and sympathy can be easily confused. Yet, they are distinctly different.
Empathy, as defined in an article published in Psychology Today, is “a person’s ability to recognize and share the emotions of another person, fictional character, or sentient being. It involves, first, seeing someone else’s situation from his perspective, and, second, sharing his emotions, including, if any, his distress.” When one has empathy, it means they can understand how someone else is feeling and also can understand why other people’s actions made sense to them. Empathy also helps us to communicate in a way that makes sense to others, and it helps us understand others when they communicate with us. Empathy is actively listening, understanding and connecting, and it is foundational to social interaction.
On the other hand, sympathy is “a feeling of care and concern for someone, often someone close, accompanied by a wish to see him better off or happier… sympathy, unlike empathy, does not involve a shared perspective or shared emotions, and while the facial expressions of sympathy do convey caring and concern, they do not convey shared distress.”
A leading figure exploring empathy is Dr. Brené Brown. She has spent the past decade studying vulnerability, courage, worthiness, and shame. In this video, she reminds us that we can only create a genuine empathic connection if we are brave enough to really get in touch with our own fragilities. Dr. Brené Brown is a research professor and best-selling author of “Daring Greatly: How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead” (Penguin Portfolio, 2013). Here is another video on empathy from a TedTalk delivered by Jamil Zaki, an assistant professor of psychology at Stanford University. Dr. Zaki’s work focuses on helping people empathize better.
One of the mission skills in our Culture of Curiosity at Moravian Academy is empathy. Our entire community is focused on and working to further cultivate and grow this important life skill among our students. How are we doing this in the Middle School you ask? We are exploring it through literature, through history, through chapel and advisory programming, and by modeling it. Empathy is not something you have or you don’t. Empathy is something you can learn and grow over time. When you understand what someone else is thinking or feeling, it becomes easier to interact with them.