A friend once asked me whether I knew the difference between empathy and sympathy.
Sympathy is feeling sorry for someone, and empathy is putting yourself in their shoes?
Yeah! I thought you didn’t know. Anyways I feel it’s more important to show empathy.
Yeah, I guess I knew the difference. And yes I do agree it is important to show empathy. But I’m beginning to feel that empathy is like wisdom, you accumulate it with age and experience.
I used to think I was more empathetic than my average peer. This was when I was a teen. I actually thought I was able to empathise well. And who’s to say if I did. But in experiencing some real hard days over the past couple of years, I realised I’m probably not as empathetic as I’d like to be. Or a least, I need to try harder.
So I reflected on why this may be.
The obvious difference is that I faced more challenges and obstacles as an adult compared to when I was a teenager.
As a teen, the things I empathised on were ones like feeling stressed out from exam preparation or like breaking up with a boyfriend or like why is that teacher so scary!?
Into adulthood, empathy took more effort. When I had a hard day at work and raged about it in my head because I got scolded by my boss, I then asked myself how I could perceive the situation with some empathy?
I took a look at my boss, who no doubt looked stressed as well. Perhaps she’s facing her own obstacles too. Perhaps she’s got her own challenges and we’re all just in the same boat, trying to get our work done properly.
Or when a relative told me they had experienced some personal hardship in which I had no bearing to understand, I was therefore not as thoughtful in my reaction. I decided to make up for my lack of empathy with showing sympathy instead. But even that didn’t feel right. I wish I knew what they felt.
I’m not saying that one has to experience the same in order to share true empathy. But I do realise that developing empathy is not just something that happens, it’s a life long process. Through all the experiences that you either directly experience or are indirectly associated with, different forms of empathy is developed.
I also feel conscious effort must be taken. Sometimes we have to force ourselves to exercise empathy. From there do we understand things better.