The Difference Between Empathy & Sympathy

empathy vs. sympathy

Many people are drawn to a health care career because they naturally care about others. It can be very rewarding to be there for someone during the time of greatest need. For those who are caretakers and nurturers by nature, it can be very easy to become emotionally invested in the pain and suffering of your patients. But there's a difference between sympathy and empathy, and understanding the appropriate time and place for each will help you be more effective, whether you pursue an associate in nursing, choose to become a respiratory therapist or something entirely different.

The Basics of Emotional Reactions

It's very normal and healthy to feel upset when others are in pain. These feelings usually manifest themselves as pity, empathy, and sympathy. Pity is the most distant reaction to hearing about another person's distress. Pity implies that the person is helpless and makes no effort to help them improve his or her situation.

The Role of Sympathy

It's hard not to show sympathy for someone in pain if you are a generally caring and compassionate person. Sympathy shows that you're making an effort to care and that you do genuinely want the other person to feel better. The feeling of sympathy is what makes you able to say the most appropriate things to someone who is suffering. For example, you might tell a patient you know what they're going through is difficult, but because your feelings are more abstract, the other person may not feel like you really "get it."

The Role of Empathy

Empathy is another reaction to seeing others in pain, but it requires active listening and reliving personal moments. Empathizing with someone means you are able to put yourself in his or her shoes and imagine what they are feeling. Sometimes you are able to do this because you have actually experienced what the other person is going through, which makes you very relatable. Whereas sympathy is an appropriate and acceptable acknowledgment that someone is suffering, empathy builds a connection with that person. Being empathetic is non-judgmental and requires you to set aside your own concerns as you try to understand the mindset and emotions of another person. When we are motivated by empathy, it makes us much more effective in a health care career. Research shows that empathetic communication from physicians leads to greater patient satisfaction. As a partner in the health care process, your empathy can also improve your patients' experiences.

Appropriate Reactions in Health Care Career

As a person in a health care career, it can be very easy to become overwhelmed by the amount of pain you witness every day. Finding a balance between appropriate empathy and not allowing it to consume you is a challenge that takes time and discipline to develop. When your natural desire to help people is leading you to a health care career, you'll get the right start at Concorde.
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