Empathy vs Sympathy in Psychodynamic Psychotherapy

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.




By Joseph Burgo

Joe is the author and the owner of AfterPsychotherapy.com, one of the leading online mental health resources on the internet. Be sure to connect with him on Google+ and Linkedin.


  1. I have people in my life, one in particular, who always has a drama unfolding. It can be months or hours between calling her and her response never differs. She answers the phones and immediately starts off on her tangent of what the latest drama is – e.g. she’s exhausted because one of her children has been up all night, been at the hospital, couldn’t get one of them to sleep; or her mother, father, father-in-law, aunt, uncle, cousin, husband is unwell. It is always something.

    This used to really bother me but since being in a place myself where I can much more easily accept others as they are, I have no real problem with it as I do not ‘buy’ into it. All I say is “Gosh, that’s no good”. I find this is the easiest way for me to deal with it. It is not at all that I do not want to give genuine sympathy or empathy when it is warranted but the continual drama is not something I have in my life now, and I certainly do not wish to engage in others’ dramas.

    Thank you for another great post.

    1. I know a drama person too who used to drive me crazy- now I just ignore the phone when said person calls because one thing I learned is that you don’t always have to catch the ball just because it’s thrown at you.

  2. Well, the difference between sympathy and empathy seems rather confusing to me as I don’t think I’ve heard it quite that way before. But that aside, I guess that I usually hope to show sympathy or empathy unless it is enabling bad behavior. I never considered the possibility that you need to address an inner rage rather than validating a person. When I have expressed anger in emails to people about past experiences(not by the person that I was venting), I was upset when they never said that I did not deserve the treatment or that they were sorry for my pain. I have in the past have someone say those golden words “you didn’t deserve that.” I try not to be all about the past or to be bitter. I think believing that someone cares does help the healing. I don’t think I would do well if I were to go to your type of therapy as it sounds too painful. But I admire people who do that type of work. As I said in a previous comment, I am hoping that I am as good as I think I am on the surface. By the way, I would not appreciate it if you were to say that you sense an inner rage in me in a public place. 🙁

    1. I would never say such a thing to you (or anyone else) in a public place! I probably wouldn’t say it to anyone other than a client under any conditions, unless I felt it was interfering with an important relationship.

  3. I am sorry with my statement as I didn’t think you were going to say anything like that. I was just saying it just in case. I am glad that you are very professional. This is certainly an interesting blog. I think I found out about it on Twitter. I certainly be back to read more from time to time.

  4. I have read this blog post a little while ago and it made me think a lot.
    I totally agree with you there. I personally benefit a great deal from my natural empathy and I think I am a person who has a very good intuition and is often spot-on to what really lies “behind” something (in the good and also in the not so comfortable ways that it can show).

    Your article just made me realize how much of our daily actions are connected to our own empathetic ability and intuiation. I believe it has a great impact on how we prioritize and that again is something that pays into our own “reliability” and “accountability” to other people too (a long line of effects so to say…).

    Since I personally can count and rely on my own empathy so much I find it quite puzzling how people manage that aren’t blessed with that kind of “feel” for things (you mentioned the role of god and the Freudian idea of a superego, etc – and that is all very true) but I was wondering – with your years of experience and scientific knowledge in the field – do you think “empathy” is something that can be trained or “re-learned”?

    I am not a professional, but I know about the existance of mirror neurons and that they play a significant role here (from a neurobiological perspective). I also have learned about the impact of early childhood / family trauma on the development of empathy – in many cases a difficult parent /neer peergroup- child relationship seems to prevent people from developping their empathetic abilities. It is all too understandable when “feeling someone elses feelings” comes with a pain and therewith damage that a young mind simply cannot bare (“blocking empathic feelings” is an unconscious strategy of selfprotection surely too).

    Now, what the mind has learned early, is very hard to unlearn later on (that is a commonly known fact) but I would love to hear your opinion on the possibility of personal development in that field.

    Can “empathy” be learned? Or better said, can people “grow a sense for it” when provided the surrounding that is needed or do you think all that is possible for a person that was traumatized at an early age for example is learning how to be more “sympathetic” (develop a better theory of mind) and understanding the “bigger picture” a bit better?

    Thank you in advance for your answer and congratulations on your wonderful blog. I discovered it in twitter and enjoy reading your posts immensely. (A little feedback here: I would love to have something like a menue where I can easily have all the articles you have written (not just the recent ones) in one view. I am not sure if it’s possible to realize this with the wordpress template you are using but it’s worth considering the change as I am sure many other readers would appreciate this navigational help too. A search functionality would also be great and improve the usability for the increasing amount of content!)

    Best regards and a lovely Sunday over to you,

    1. Nini, first of all, I’ll see what I can do about a menu. I’ve been considering whether to have a different kind of menu from the one below the photograph that would divide the posts into categories such as narcissism, shame, relationship issues, etc.

      I do think that empathy can be learned. I’ve seen it happen in the context of long-term therapy with my clients. I think the experience of being in contact with and understood by someone who strongly empathizes with all your feelings, even the ugly ones, over time helps you to develop that capacity yourself in relation to other people. I believe the more you can bear your own experience, the more you can empathize with others. When defenses are strong and too much of your emotional life is split-off and denied, it interferes with empathy for other because they may stir up feelings inside of you that you don’t want to feel.

      On another note, what I’ve often seen with people who have had intrusive and extremely needy (borderline-type) mothers, is that they develop an extraordinary and precocious empathy. Their mothers have needed it from them, to begin with; and then, they must also become attuned to their mother in order to figure out how to get what they need.

      1. Thank you for your quick reply. I think it is a wonderful thing that it’s possible for people who were traumatized early to learn empathy again! It would be great if more of them found the way to a capable professional to get the respective support for developping their own selfs. I have a good friend who’s son was recently diagnosed with autism. I guess for him the situation is probably a bit different.

        By the way, I like your idea with regards to the usability of the page!

  5. “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’.”

    YES! That’s exactly what I see quite regularly in a couple of trauma and abuse and psychotherapy support forums I visit. Most clients appear to be receiving or searching for a type of therapy that bears almost no resemblance to my own. They describe a “great therapist” as someone who makes them feel warm and fuzzy, who meets some of their unmet childhood needs and who validates their feelings and helps to affirm their innate “goodness,” someone who sets them apart from the “bad” people who hurt them by always confirming that they are not like those bad people because they never want to hurt anyone.
    Needless to say, I don’t fit in well when I post about my own therapy because my therapist was and still is just as diligent as yours was in helping me recognize my own “badness.” I was even banned from a support forum last year when I wrote about finally being able to acknowledge some of my own behavior as abusive. The “A” word upset some members who couldn’t tolerate having an “abuser” in their midst and so I was banned — not because I had actually behaved abusively toward anyone there, but because I identified myself as being less than “good” by using the “A” word. The funny (well, not so funny at the time but I do find some humor in it now) thing was, those who were most vocal about getting me removed were actually behaving abusively toward me, and some other members even pointed that out, but… that didn’t matter. They didn’t identify themselves as being abusive; therefore they weren’t.
    And that was one time when my therapist expressed lots of sympathy for me. 🙂

  6. Nini mentioned autism and I am curious about your feelings about aspergers. Is aspergers real and if it is can they be taught empathy? I have preteen son that was diagnosed with AS a few years ago and I still don’t understand the way his mind operates especially his lack of empathy. Part of me doesn’t even believe AS is real, that his problem is really because of some way that I failed parenting him.

    1. You probably know I’m not big on diagnosis, but I do believe that there are people like your son whose empathy is deeply impaired, and not necessarily because you “failed”. You may have heard of that old outdated theory about the remote, refrigerator-mother being the cause of autism; but in more recent years, other theories (besides the biological) have come forward. The school of thought associated with Frances Tustin holds that autistic disorders have to do with a premature awareness of separation between the mother and infant, and that autistic defenses are attempts to blot out that awareness, to deny separation. It’s hard to feel empathy for another person when you can’t tolerate the experience of separation from him or her. And by the way, this premature awareness of separation isn’t the mother’s “fault”, it’s not necessarily because of something she did wrong.

  7. I find myself uncomfortable with that possible causation for something as extreme as autism. My son was ‘diagnosed’ with something near that spectrum of autistic behaviors, sensory integration disorder, and I know that he had this disorder before he was born. From what I can tell, his nervous system was stressed and potentially interfered with during his development by a low grade allergy I have to drupe fruits, and possibly either creating his reactive nature to those fruits or from his own allergy. My allergy is primarily chronic physical symptoms over a period of weeks, while his symptoms appear as acute neurological/behavioral and occur over a period of hours within ingestion. I can see how such a process could cause interferance with the neural patterns being laid down during development. These are my observations.

    As for being a good person, I can only wish I knew how to be a truly good person. I have always known I have rage from my childhood. I wish I knew how to be a kinder, more caring person so that other people would feel that from me. I struggle with that concept that we attract people to us that feel those same feelings at our same level of dysfunction, or are we just conditioned to accept that sort of dysfunctional behavior so that it feels normal. Where someone else would know that behavior was toxic, I am so used to it that I don’t run for my mental and emotional life because I am so accustomed to that painful dance and not being allowed to pull my hand away from the proverbial fire that I don’t even know how to do so now, when I have choices. I hope I am not as abusive as those people whom I have ended up with in my life. I fear the prospect that I actually am. I don’t want to be a ‘wanna be’ good person. I am afraid that is all I know. If you know any resources to help someone find that better person that isn’t just trying too hard, I would appreciate the knowledge.

    1. I think the issue is learning how to bear and manage your rage, understand its roots and probably the shame that goes with it, rather than trying to be a better person. Striving to be good leads to a kind of falseness most of the time, where people use the right language and do the right things but it doesn’t actually have any meaning.

  8. Stafenie empathized with the bird, and felt an empathic rage against the other kids – you felt the same empathic anger (on behalf of the bird) when she told you the story – yes? You just didn’t necessarily agree with the point she was trying to make in telling you the story – that she was “good” because she did not join in the torturing of the bird by the “bad” kids – am I correct in my understanding?

    1. No. Stephanie did not feel “empathic rage”; she took refuge in a sentimentalized view of herself as entirely good and nothing like those “bad” kids. She had a lot of unconscious rage she couldn’t face and I empathized with it.

  9. I have been having a lot of difficulty explaining to my boyfriend, who we’ll call Erik, that I don’t feel like he’s empathetic enough. The few times I have hinted at or said this directly, he has gotten extremely defensive…

    Let me tell you about him. Erik is very liberal, believes in social welfare, has immense sympathy for the suffering of poor children, the disabled, or civilians who die in battle. However, when you give him an example of someone who he feels contributed to their own outcome, he has ZERO sympathy for them. This might not sound so unreasonable, but let me give you a couple of examples of how this plays out.

    First, his mother Jessica is an incredibly giving, loving, self-less person. This means that she is considered both generous and weak-willed. Her husband is in a thinly veiled affair with a woman that will literally pick him up from the house for dates. Jessica is afraid of how her life will change if she divorces him, and so doesn’t really offer any complaints about it. When we talk about this situation with Erik and his brothers, they all talk about how their mother is weak because she doesn’t try to get herself out of this situation – yet they NEVER talk about how their father is the instigator. When I point out that their father deserves the blame, they agree and say “well, he’s never going to change – Jessica is the one with all the cards.” And I don’t know how to tell them – how is it that the woman who is being victimized is completely at fault, and deserves no sympathy? I believe that the best way to help Jessica is to build her self-esteem up enough so that she feels confident enough to leave her husband…am I wrong?

    Second, and tied up with the first example, is the fact that Erik’s brother is Schizophrenic and is most likely not taking his medication. Erik is mad at his mother for not making sure that his brother takes his meds. He tells her, “You have to put him in a home, or you’ll never have any peace in your own home.” While this may be the truth, why is it that she is the one who has to take care of everything? Why are all of these responsibilities put on her head alone? After he yelled at his mother a couple of times and then snidely told her “Well I hope you enjoy retirement at home with your crazy son,” I told him that if he did it again in my company, I would be extremely upset. Now, he keeps these opinions to himself when he’s around Jessica, but he still feels them, and he’s not ashamed to tell me that. I’ve tried to tell him that he needs to be able to empathize with his mother, but all he can think is that he has no sympathy for her because she could change her life if she only tried.

    Third, we were reading a story about a group of middle eastern women who were afraid to leave their homes because of religious extremists that would kill or maim them for going outside by themselves. Erik said that he had very little sympathy for them because they should be trying harder to pull themselves out of this injustice….this was one of those times where I questioned why I was dating this man. How could someone be so extreme in their ideals of “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps,” that he couldn’t sympathize OR empathize with a situation like that?

    Lastly, this concerns a fight we had because of something he said to me. The back story is that I am a very forgetful person, and Erik and I had just had a discussion the day before about how I needed to be more careful with my money, which I tend to leave in my pockets or simply throw into my backpack. I came home after a long day at work (and I mean, I work 8am-1pm, and then 6pm-12:30am), I sat down on the couch and said “I think someone might have taken $20 from me”. His response: “Well, what do you expect” in a very angry tone. Basically, he had zero sympathy for me, because it was a mistake I’d made before. But my thing is, I may have made a mistake, but isn’t someone that loves you supposed to support you no matter what? And even if you didn’t take it that far, I believe I at least deserved a bit of empathy.

    Basically, what has come out of my discussions with him about these matters is that he has zero sympathy for people who could have prevented bad things from happening to them. His motto is “No excuses, just results” – he is an incredible worker and rarely procrastinates. He has even told me, to my horror, that he doesn’t believe any child deserves any sympathy for making the same mistake twice. Now, I believe in personal responsibility too, but I don’t believe that we should get angry at other people for making the same mistake twice; I believe we should empathize with them, and try to help them realize why they made the mistake in the first place. When someone gets an angry response, they back away and all communication shuts down. I may be way out of the ballpark here, but I’m afraid of having children with someone who is so hard-lined about this. I don’t want to believe this is an irreconcilable difference, but how can I get him to see that he needs to show more empathy?

    Thank you so much for considering my response. I’ve enjoyed reading your blog very much.

    1. Katie, he sounds like poor relationship material. His contempt for weakness and the struggles of others would make him a poor father, too. It sounds as if he has some idealized self-image of being a “caring liberal,” but it has more to do with his views of himself than other people. He clearly has little empathy or sympathy for anyone, but a great deal of scorn for those who have difficulties. His family also sounds highly dysfunctional. If your relationship continues, it’s a good bet that you’ll end up being treated like his mother, whom he scorns for her weakness. What is it that keeps you in this relationship?

      1. I stay with him because he is incredibly loving and generous. I know that sounds strange with all that I’ve told you, but it’s true. Some examples: when I’m really busy studying, he does most of the cleaning and cooking. He tells me how much he loves me and how beautiful I am and how lucky he is virtually every day, and he always appreciates the work I’ve done in the apartment or any successes I have. When one of his brothers was moving, he dropped everything and went over to help him move all of his things, and put together new furniture without even being asked. He never forgets a birthday, and calls his family to check in with them nearly every day.

        This is why I’m so torn. He’s such a love, caring person, that when he acts like jerk to his own mother, or says something insensitive about people who aren’t pulling their own weight, it is shockingly contrasted with how I normally perceive him. Since I’ve been typing this, he’s come in to give me a bit of a shoulder massage and to pour me a cup of coffee…And when we get in fights over things, although he is stubborn during the fight, the next day he usually comes around and makes concessions. He has improved with his mother since I’ve spoken with him about it; however, he does acknowledge that he feels the same way, but just keeps his mouth shut now because “there’s no point in trying to get her to change.”

        I’ve had a few fights with him over things like this before, and during the last fight we sort of agreed that he could try to not react so negatively, and that I could try not to be as sensitive…but I don’t really feel like I AM being that sensitive. He also said that he would be willing to go to couples’ counseling at our school, so I’m hoping we will still do that.

        When we had been dating for a few months, I asked him why his ex girlfriend of ten years (who the whole family agrees was horrible, and who later admitted to being diagnosed as bipolar) broke up with him, and he said it was because she called him “selfish.” At the time I remember thinking how ridiculous that was, since he was so loving and generous; now, I wonder if I’ve been seeing the signs of that. Is it selfishness, or self-centeredness? He gives to those who HE decides deserve it. I think it partially stems from his older sister, who takes and takes but never gives…perhaps he has become so outraged by this kind of behavior, that he really makes sure people “earn” his generosity?

        I hope you don’t judge him too harshly. He is so kind and wonderful 99% of the time. And I don’t think the 1% that he isn’t should make him deemed hopeless. In fact, I’m hoping that he will come to couples counseling with me, and we could work through this. But yes, I do have some serious doubts about our future.

        1. I don’t judge him harshly — he actually sounds like a great guy. Maybe you just need to accept the other side of him and let him be the way he is, since it doesn’t seem to impact the way he treats you personally. And don’t we all decide to give to those we feel deserve it? I don’t believe in some impossible standard of selflessness; in light of our limited resources, doesn’t it make sense to give to those people who have earned our generosity, rather than to everyone, regardless of their behavior?

          1. Thank you for your input. I do have to remind myself sometimes that I can’t force everyone to have the same level of empathy as I do. And that’s not to sound self-satisfied; in fact, unfailing empathy has it’s own set of problems. I think the only thing that still tickles in the back of my mind is how he might treat our children. That’s why I think I will still encourage him to go to counseling with me when the time comes around. If he’s anything, he’s a student (and he literally is a PhD candidate), so I know that if we calmly assess the concerns we, okay I, have, he’ll be willing to listen to the recommendations of a professional as to how children should be treated. He likes to play hardball with me, but much less with a PhD.

    2. Erik identifies with his father. If you are truly interested how this dynamic works, I will recommend you read ferenczi sandor.
      Erik is the young version of the father but sometimes he has glimpses of the mother when he shows sympathy or empathy or whatever for those struggling to make a living.
      However, he is right about one thing. The mother has to change the dynamic not the father. Pain is more powerful than benefits. The mother is in pain whether she is acknowledging or not but she globalizes this pain as also being blamed for her son not taking medicine. Her character is such that she has high tolerance for abuse. The father and the sons are on the benefit side and on narcissism spectrum (on the negative side) and will not lose their position unless the co-dependency is gone.

      Basically Eric, brothers, and the father all project all their bad parts to the mother and the mother projects all her good parts to them. Disaster. If she leaves, they may realize they have no target for all their bad parts and will suffer maybe! and she may suffer for while realizing she left all her good parts in these people, but it is always much easier to take back the good parts in therapy than take back the bad parts.

      Basically this why it is hard for a narcissist to change. Why change if you are taking good parts from people? but if you are giving out good parts, therapy can help much easier because it is easy to see how you are giving up your good parts.

      Hope this makes sense.

      PS. I got the feeling, Erik makes good living and is very attractive; otherwise, you would not be with him. You are already in the process of also giving up your good parts just like his mother.

  10. Thanks Joseph, you original post has helped me to explore the differences between Sympathy and Empathy in a much more complex way and your example helps me to recognise the barrier to empathy that sympathy can be. Further and purely to help definition, I use the example of greetings Cards; we may sometimes send a ‘Deepest Sympathy’ card but there is no ‘Deepest Empathy’ card.

  11. Reading this post has given me some very scary insight into my self and my behaviors. I identify with Stephanie, and want so badly to be this “good” person but I know I have an inner rage that has been for as long as I can remember. My rage can be towards family just as easily as customer service representatives. The odd part is I’ve always felt that my rage came out of others not showing empathy, sympathy or any consideration for me. I’ll even admit as I got older I would lie (and without realizing, manipulate) others to try and further illicit the empathy I so desired. Whether from a professor whom I need an extension because I just couldn’t wrap my head around an assignment, to my significant other to help him understand how stressed I am about some certain thing, to that representative on the phone who was being (as I perceived) rude and and not thoughtful about whatever it was I needed and asked for from them.

    I don’t know how one post could bring out all the new thoughts and realizations but it did. I guess my issue now is what do I do now? How can I move forward?

    1. I write a lot about this kind of rage and what inspires it. It sounds to me as if there is some basic shame behind your anger.

  12. Why were you not convinced by her tears? Watching someone torture a bird sounds honestly traumatic. Feeling helpless leaves scars. Was she just acting for you ? We’re they fake tears? I’m very curious about how a therapist comes to such an abstract conclusion. I know when you work in a profession for many years, that you understand your craft in a way most people don’t. I’m just curious about your disbelief.

    1. I felt as if it were a kind of act, yes, but for her benefit as well as mine. I almost always feel some echoing pain when one of my clients is crying, and when I don’t, it’s usually (not always) an indication that the tears are masking something else. “Crocodile tears” is the expression we use to capture this dynamic.

  13. I really like Ur post. I m.a psychiatric technocian and soon to be licensed vocational nurse .next step registered nurse then physicians assisstant…i love to counselpeople in nature and would like help being the best at this..your post I would like to read more to apply the sympathy vs empathy role of splitting philosophy

  14. I completely agree to the point that being Sympathetic just make us also feel bad, no other good.

    Is both Sympathy & Empathy are interconnected ? Can we have Empathy without Sympathy? I think it is Sympathy which is generated first in our mind normally & we convert it to Empathy, if we can help.

  15. I know this is a very old thread, but I just stumbled across it.
    I’m wondering about this whole sympathy/empathy thing. I sometimes find my therapist too sympathetic or empathetic. I don’t like it when she tells me to be gentler on myself, I would rather the truth. I would rather she, not carte blanche sympathize but listen to what I am saying. I don’t need to be told I am not as bad as I think I am, I do know that, it’s just my way of expressing my anger and shame.
    Sorry if this is really off topic, at first it didn’t seem off topic, but it likely is.

    1. Not off topic. Your therapist sounds to me as if she is “using” or purposefully displaying empathy as a kind of therapeutic tool. This often strikes me as inauthentic and forced, and I can understand why you react the way you do.

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