In my last post, I discussed the role of empathy in promoting moral behavior; it set me to thinking more about empathy and, in particular, the way people often use that word interchangeably with the word sympathy when they actually describe different experiences. If you’re already clear on that difference, bear with me.
Here are two dictionary definitions from Merriam-Webster:
“the act or capacity of entering into or sharing the feelings or interests of another”
“the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts and experience of another of either the past of present without having the feelings, thoughts and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner”
In my view, the distinction between empathy vs sympathy involves the difference between entering into and sharing those feelings that another person may have verbally and intentionally expressed vs intuiting something unspoken, of which the other person may sometimes be entirely unaware. I often find that clients want me to sympathize with what they’re telling me, when in fact, they need me to empathize with and help them become aware of something unconscious they’re afraid to know.
I gave a good example in my prior post. My tearful client Stephanie related the story of mean children on the playground at school, torturing an injured bird they had found; she wanted me to share in and sympathize with her expressed feelings of horror at their cruelty, thus validating her self-image as a “good person” in contrast to the other “bad” children. As I said, I found those tears “emotionally unpersuasive”; I did not sympathize.
Instead, what I felt, though I didn’t fully understand it at that point, was an inkling of her unconscious rage. I felt it in my body and face; I couldn’t articulate it even to myself, but I had a sense that Stephanie unconsciously felt something quite different from the feelings she apparently wanted me to share. Such intuitions are the bedrock of psychotherapy from a psychodynamic perspective and not terribly scientific. In my training, teachers and individual supervisors took this for granted, generally validating such emotional perceptions and treating them as “facts” to be considered along with the other material brought by my clients; but you’re often met with polite skepticism if you express this view to lay people, or even to other psychotherapists who practice in different modalities.
This is not to say that such perceptions take precedence over a client’s spoken material. Often, if you come right out and articulate those unconscious feelings, your client will feel defensive and misunderstood; the unconscious feeling is too remote and shielded from awareness by a layer of defenses. One approach holds that you should nonetheless go ahead and speak of those unconscious emotions, then talk about the ensuing defenses your client uses to ward off the truth; another says you should wait until the feeling is closer to consciousness before articulating it, when doing so will arouse less resistance.
It has been many years since that session with Stephanie; I don’t recall exactly what I said at that time. Over the ensuing months, however, I did make many interpretations that ran something like this: “I think you’re afraid that you might not be as nice as you’d like to believe, and that underneath, you have a whole bunch of very angry and destructive feelings that scare you.” Over time, especially when she began to tell me about incidents of explosive hostility, the evidence to support that interpretation became clear to her. She developed a conviction of its truthfulness and came to feel understood, even if she disliked what I had understood about her.
This is the difference between empathy vs sympathy: in the beginning, Stephanie wanted me to sympathize with her somewhat sentimental view of herself as a “good person”, thereby supporting her defensive attempts to ward off that scary violence inside; in the course of our work, I was able to empathize with her unconscious violence and help her to make acquaintance with a split-off part of herself that lay at the root of her troubles.
In this example, if I’d had a hard time acknowledging my own violent emotions, it would have limited my ability to empathize with Stephanie. I might have warded off those feelings she was stirring up in me and excluded them from awareness. I might have sympathized instead, colluding with her defensive attempt to believe in her own “goodness”. Fortunately, my own therapist had been diligent in pointing out my hostility whenever it reared its ugly head; over the years, he helped me to integrate a split-off and destructive part of myself, as much as I sometimes hated him for bringing me the “bad news.”
This discussion points out the need for a psychodynamic psychotherapist to have extensive personal therapy. If you’re practicing in a cognitive-behavioral mode, it might not matter so much since this need to distinguish between empathy vs sympathy plays little part in your work, at least from a technical perspective. If you’re a medicating psychiatrist who meets with a different client every 15 minutes, having personal therapy probably isn’t crucial. If you work the way I do, personal therapy is the most important part of your training. I’d say I learned 70% of what I know from my own therapist and most of the rest from my supervisors and clients. From books, I learned very little.
Finding Your Own Way:
Have you ever had an empathy vs sympathy experience similar to the one I described with Stephanie, where you felt invited to sympathize with something a friend was telling you and you did not feel sympathetic? Did you find yourself having unvoiced thoughts like, “You always have exactly the same complaint about the people you date; you ought to take a look at why you’re so drawn to the abusive type.” Maybe you felt annoyed or irritated, which could have been an inkling of the unconscious hostility your friend had a hard time acknowledging.
What about the “holier than thou” types I referred to in my last post. I find such people to be a royal pain in the neck; maybe you do, too, and sometimes feel hostile toward them when they’re coming across as a goody-two-shoes. It’s not just your own feelings. Such behavior, because it involves splitting off and projecting unacknowledged parts the self, often has the effect of evoking those very feelings in people nearby.