By Katie Beckham - 11/15/2021


Empathy. This word seems to be thrown around a lot, but what really is it? First, it is important to differentiate between sympathy and empathy.

According to Mariam Webster Dictionary, sympathy is defined as “the feeling that you care about and are sorry about someone else’s trouble, grief, misfortune, etc.” For example, a common gesture and expression of sympathy is sending a sympathy card when a good friend loses a loved one. It shows this person cares and is offering support.

Empathy takes it a step further. Empathy is connection. Empathy is the “let me step into your shoes” emotion. Sharing the emotions of another is one way people find connection. To truly step into the shoes of another involves risk and vulnerability. It involves being in touch with your own emotional experience to truly experience and share the emotions of another.

Oftentimes sympathy is easier to access, as this emotion does not require as much personal discomfort. Empathy, on the other hand, feels risky. A frequently difficult moment to feel empathy is when we ourselves have wronged and/or hurt someone else. This often leads to a sense of shame, which often carries the message “I am bad”. Shame is quick to block empathy, promoting disconnection in our intimate relationships where we truly desire the most connection. Shame hinders our ability to fully step into the shoes of another even if we are under the impression that we are being empathetic.

Thus, a powerful question to ask yourself might be “Am I being sympathetic or empathetic?” The answer to this question can be answered in how you are responding to the person hurting. For example, if you are in a space of attempting to “fix it” for them, you are most likely experiencing sympathy. Empathy does not provide answers. Empathy resembles sitting in the uncomfortable emotion with the other person and tolerating the discomfort. Empathy will undeniably breed more connection with the people in your life if you are able to access it. It does undoubtedly take practice as it often does not come natural to some.

Here are some practical steps to cultivating more empathy:

  1. As stated above, work to get in touch with your own emotions. If you do not have empathy for yourself, you will likely have trouble expressing empathy to others.
  2. Address your shame (if you have it). A good way to reduce shame is to share, and share again, and share some more. The more people who can hear your story the better.
  3. Practice sitting with uncomfortable emotions. We often work very hard to avoid any uncomfortable emotion. Empathy requires us to find comfort in the discomfort.


Merriam-Webster. (n.d.). Sympathy. In Merriam-Webster.com dictionary. Retrieved October 25, 2021, from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/sympathy

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