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Empathy vs. Sympathy

Think back to a time when you were feeling low or going through a challenging time. Who did you talk to, what did they say and how did they make you feel? What action of theirs was the most supportive for you? I suspect it wasn’t the solutions they offered in trying to 'fix' you, or them telling you all about the good things in life you should be grateful for (you already knew about those) but it was how they made you feel: held, supported and accepted simply for how you were in that moment.

During the Mental Health First Aider training courses, we spend a lot of time teaching people how to listen and communicate in a non-judgemental way because what we do, what we say and how we make people feel is a really important part of the role. To encourage people to open up and talk about their feelings when they are probably feeling quite vulnerable, Mental Health First Aiders need to create a safe, empathetic space in which people feel at ease and without worry of being met with judgement, ridicule or pity that usually comes from sympathy. How can we create that space?

Listen and communicating non-judgementally is a skill that can be learnt but it is not always easy as we are hardwired as human beings to be judgemental, very judgemental! Our minds have to make meaning of everything it sees so we are continually making judgements and that is ok, it is what we do with those judgements that matter. The next time someone tells you they're feeling low or depressed and you feel the words rising, 'c'mon, cheer up, you've got nothing to be depressed about, you've got an amazing life!' , recognise the judgement, take a breath and say something instead like, 'it sounds like you're having a really tough time at the moment; I am not surprised you're feeling this way. How can I help you?', which will probably be more supportive.

Human beings are also hardwired to fix and problem solve, which is great for addressing practical challenges but not so when it comes to solving complex emotions. Albeit with good intentions, when we jump in with solutions we wander into the dodgy, and often unhelpful, territory of advice. Advice is given based on our own experiences but until we have walked in the other person's shoes we can't possibly know what the best course of action is and our advice could even be damaging. Again, the key is to recognise the impulse to jump in with solutions, take a breath and instead ask the person what they would like to do, or how you can help them. The likelihood is they just need you to listen with an empathetic ear.

"Empathy drives connection, sympathy drives disconnection" - Dr. Brené Brown

To someone going through a tough time, a sympathetic response of, 'I'm sorry you feel like that' offers pity rather than support. It could feel isolating for that person, driving disconnection. Empathy is the ability to show someone you understand what they're going through by acknowledging and identifying with how they're feeling in the moment, showing support and driving connection. We may not be able to truly empathise with the feelings of depression or grief if we haven't experienced those for ourselves. We can all connect and empathise on some level with the feelings of suffering and distress the person is experiencing in the moment.

Watch this short video (2mins 53secs) created by Dr. Brené Brown and the RSA which illustrates beautifully the difference between Empathy vs. Sympathy

If after watching the video you're beating yourself up for making the 'at least' statements, please don't. Those statements would have come from the right place and we have all said them. I hope this blog and/or the video has helped you to see that we don't need to try to 'fix' anyone, just being there as a support is enough. Overall, I believe that simply being human, genuine and empathetic are the most important attitudes to embody. Being kind, always.

Much love,



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