Misunderstood Empathy


I was once accused of ‘lacking empathy.’ The accusation not only hurt, but it confused me to no end. I’m so acutely aware of other people’s feelings that I often need to shield myself from this awareness so as not to feel overwhelmed.

This is the reason that many HSP’s seem socially inept. The abbreviation stands for Highly Sensitive Person, and it’s a term coined by psychologist Elaine Aron in the 90’s. HSP’s are people with an ‘increased sensitivity of the central nervous system and a deeper cognitive processing of physical, social and emotional stimuli.’ (source) Although this sensitivity helped me to be a better counselor back when I was practicing, I’m grateful that I have learned to pull back from it, and I try to be reserved about responding to signals that others inadvertently send out.

But there’s another reason why people are sometimes unjustly labeled as ‘lacking empathy.’ After listening to many discussions about ‘empathy’ (which refers to the ability to feel what other people are feeling), it seems to me that people often use that word when they really mean ‘sympathy’ (which refers to how one actively responds to other people’s situations). And yes, an expression of sympathy can emerge from empathy. But it’s also possible that sympathy is expressed out of courtesy, or even that it’s based on an incorrect interpretation of the other’s feelings.

Don’t get me wrong, I value courtesy and kindness highly. I’m always happy to see people thinking of others and not just of themselves. But it’s not the same thing as ‘empathy.’

My empathy will not always result in a sympathetic or even compassionate response. I might be non-committal or say nothing at all, unwilling to divulge what I saw behind the spoken word. Sometimes I will throw all politeness to the winds and give a blunt response, saying exactly what I think (as tactfully as I can). I value authenticity above anything else.

Communicating on social media brings an added difficulty. Not everyone is skilled at written communication, and it’s very difficult to read between the lines and sense what someone is really expressing. I often see people responding with sympathy. But is that what the person really needs? I’ve been pulling away from expressing private thoughts and events on Facebook. I’m not sure I enjoy triggering the outpouring of responses that often ensues. I often wonder if sensitive people should be exposing themselves to so much emotional stimuli. Social media, as I’ve commented in earlier posts, brings mixed blessings.

When using words like ‘empathy’ and ‘sympathy,’ it’s important to understand the difference. Especially if, as in my opening statement, you’re passing judgement on someone else. But also when you’re trying to decide on an appropriate response. An expression of sympathy may be what the person wants to hear, but is that what they really need? Your ability to empathize might be telling you something else. My advice would be to stay as true to yourself as possible.


  1. Well worth the read. Made me think. Thanks for sharing

  2. Mary-Lou Gillette

    Empathy is a feeling. It needs no words. To use words to tell someone that they have no empathy, demonstrates a lack of empathy and the words become arrows.
    There are too many arrows.

  3. Thanks, Madeleine. As you’ve seen, I have a colleague who works with Elaine Aron and runs an equine-assisted practice for HSPs especially. I shared your post with her via email.
    Interestingly for me, I remember having a lengthy discussion with a group of 9th graders back in 1978 about the difference between sympathy and empathy. They were all very engaged and sincere. I’ve never forgotten that. Your words about that are very wise, and very obviously based on experience and reflection. Thanks so much, once again!

    • Thank you, Jim! What a wonderful discussion to have with 9th graders. It’s good to awaken their awareness of communication and sensitivity at an early age. You must have been a very inspiring teacher!

  4. I don’t think I will ever have the ability to feel what other people are feeling. Why would I want to put myself in their shoes and suffer as well. Other people’s feelings are far too personal for me to intrude. I can only try to understand how they may feel and sympathise if they are suffering. In writing fiction an author must get inside his characters and imagine how they might feel in any given situation. But they are imaginary and he has licence to project his own feelings. Actors have to do it to a greater extent and that can’t be easy. So, I must lack empathy too, and I wouldn’t worry if someone told me. By the way, I cry a lot when something moves me, like a brilliant movie or book.

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