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I Got A Gold Star! – Tales of a Psychology Student

Posted Sep 26 2011 9:00am

Currently, I am in my second semester of college, and I am taking my first psychology class. The name of the class is Interpersonal Effectiveness. So far, even though the work is challenging, I am really enjoying this class. Every week I am given at least one discussion topic with specific instructions to follow. My responsibility is to follow those instructions and post a response to the class discussion boards. In addition, One class requirement I must follow is to respond to at least two other student’s assignments. This week’s discussion topic was about sympathy and empathy. The following is the instructions I had to follow

Conduct an online search for three different definitions of empathy and three different definitions of sympathy. Note: use reputable sources such as Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary and avoid sources such a Wikipedia.

Using your three definitions as sources of support, define the difference(s) between empathy and sympathy and justify your position.

What is the role of empathy in listening and perspective taking? Why would “imagination, open-mindedness, and commitment” be useful skills for being an empathetic listener?

Remember to make references and integrate examples, terms, theory, and research from your readings to support your points and examples.

I am very proud of the response my instructor gave me regarding this assignment, so I thought I would share it with you; including the psychology instructor’s response to my assignment.

The online Merriam-Webster Learning Dictionary defines sympathy as:

the feeling that you care about and are sorry about someone else’s trouble, grief, misfortune, etc. : a sympathetic feeling Merriam-Webster Learning Dictionary Retrieved September 21, 2011 from http://www.learnersdictionary.com/search/sympathy

The online Merriam-Webster Learning Dictionary defines empathy as:

the feeling that you understand and share another person’s experiences and emotions Merriam-Webster Learning Dictionary Retrieved September 21, 2011 from http://www.learnersdictionary.com/search/empathy

Although sympathy and empathy sound very familiar, and both are used in reference to feelings, each one has a very distinct and different meaning. In short, sympathy is the acknowledgment of a person’s emotions, and empathy is knowing, understanding, and sharing in a person’s emotions. When used properly, each one can be a valuable tool in a person’s emotional toolbox.

It appears to me that sympathy is about an individual acknowledging another person’s physical and/or emotional pain without actually relating to it. Maybe the individual cannot relate to another’s physical and/or emotional pain because he or she has never experienced a similar set of circumstances, or he or she has no emotional investment in the individual who is experiencing the physical and/or emotional pain. I do think there are times when a person chooses sympathy over empathy in order to maintain some sort of emotional distance.

In my opinion, empathy has to do with an individual’s ability to truly know, understand, and share in another person’s emotions regarding physical and/or emotional pain, as well as in his or her triumphs, joys, and positive circumstances. I think, to some extent, empathy is an acquired skill rather than something that an individual is born with. I believe that in some cases empathy comes with life experience. In other words, for most people, it is very difficult to truly know, understand, and share in another person’s circumstances, positive and/or negative, unless an individual has experienced something similar. Because empathy requires an individual to experience the same sort of emotions that another person is experiencing, it is vital for an individual to maintain some degree of balance in order to protect his or her own emotional health.

While sympathy does acknowledge a person’s emotional pain, physical pain and his or her circumstances, the reality is that it does not require the same type of emotional investment that empathy does. In essence, it is a way for an individual to let another person know that they are thinking about him or her during his or her difficult time. Conversely, empathy is impossible to achieve without an emotional investment. It is a way for an individual to express to another that he or she “has been there, done that, and has the T-shirt to prove it” and that the other person is not alone in his or her pain and joy. In addition, I believe that empathy can act as some sort of catalyst or motivation that very often propels an individual into taking some sort of action. For example, someone who has experienced the loss of a spouse will know what another person, who recently lost a spouse, might be thinking and feeling. The individual will most likely understand and know what things might be causing the other person anxiety, sadness, and how difficult his or her days might be. This understanding and knowledge could propel the individual to prepare a list, for the other person, of things that should be taken care of now that his or her spouse is deceased. It could also motivate an individual to call and check on the other person, or stop by and make sure he or she is okay.

Obviously, there is no way a single individual can have enough life experiences to be able to empathize with every circumstance that another person might have. That is when having the ability to use one’s imagination, being open-minded, and making a commitment to listen to others objectively would come in handy. These three things will allow an individual to see a set of circumstances from another person’s perspective, form an unbiased opinion, and helps an individual feel as if he or she is being listened to without being judged.

“And while perspective taking is not the same as agreeing with the other person, it is a method for taking on another person’s point of view. This requires a suspension of judgment so that for the moment you set aside your own opinions and take on those of the other person.” (Alberts, Jess K.. Interpersonal Effectiveness: Psychology 180. Argosy University, 2009. pp. 80 – 81).

 

GOLD STAR, Melissa! I may have to save this response and use it in future classes ;) I really like your summary statement, ” In short, sympathy is the acknowledgment of a person’s emotions, and empathy is knowing, understanding, and sharing in a person’s emotions.” The investment in sympathy can be quite low… the same can’t be said for true empathy!

Keep up the hard work!

Psychology Professor

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