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The Difference Between Empathy And Sympathy

Author: Author Unknown, Issue: September 1996, Topic: Advice

The following is an article that appears in the current issue of Creative News, the newsletter of Creative House which we would like to share with our readers.

When we think of psychopathology, many variations of insanity may come to mind. But here I would like to focus on psychopathology from a Jungian perspective, and to do this we must go back to the roots of this word, "psycho-patho-logy". "Psycho" comes from the Greek word, "psyche", which in English translates into soul. "Patho" comes from the Greek word "pathos", meaning: feeling, suffering, evoking pity, or that which has happened. And, of course, "logy" comes from "logos", which originally meant word or speech, but is often understood as logic, thinking or intellect.

It is interesting to take the original meanings as, "speaking about that which has happened in the soul" or "words about what is happening in the soul", and see how close they come to the process of therapy itself. We could also understand psychopathology as "the logic (meaning) of suffering in the soul" or "thinking about the feelings in one's soul." In therapy, we see a wide variety and degree of suffering; each person has an individual story to tell about their pain. It is important to listen with empathy, so that their message is well received. The words em-pathy, sym-pathy and a-pathy also share the root word "pathos". Let us compare these three and see how we use them to relate to others.

Empathy is the ability to imagine being in another person's situation, and therefore understand his/her feelings. This way of relating allows one to know the essence of suffering without taking it on as one's own. Sympathy is similar, but means to share the same feeling as another. When one sympathizes, one identifies or becomes one with that person's plight. Apathy is the absence of feeling, so one cannot relate to or care about the suffering of another person.

To illustrate, if there is a man drowning in a pond and an apathetic man happens to pass by, he would simply notice and then continue on his way. A sympathetic person would immediately feel as panicked and desperate as the victim and rush in to save him, probably drowning along with him. An empathetic passerby would neither ignore the man nor lose his own footing, but instead would come close enough to hand something (a rope, stick, etc.) to the man, and together with the man's efforts, return to dry land. In the last scenario, there is just the right amount of distance between the two people, so that they can talk. They are separate but connected to one another through a tool.

In art therapy, we hope to act in this way, and offer art supplies as tools. This is a useful metaphor to remember when wanting to help someone who is suffering, whether it is in therapy or not. We must be well-grounded, with a sense of separateness and connectedness, and remain centered even in the midst of danger in order to truly "help".

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