Sympathy vs. Empathy and Why It Matters

Becky Curtis, Override Head of Pain Coaching

When I was in rehab for a spinal chord injury, I had a friend who would come into my room, stand at the foot of my bed, and sob. She would stay until she couldn’t take it anymore. I remember feeling so helpless. I wanted to be the friend she wanted—that healthy woman that could do anything. But there was nothing I could do about this. I was lying in a bed unable to care for myself. 

Her sympathy and pity fed my own victimhood, which wasn’t helpful to my recovery. 

Sympathy paralyzes, while empathy energizes, empowers, and restores. True empathy is enabling. When someone deeply understands and listens, it empowers others. 

Someone once told me that I’m an advocate for those with chronic pain. I didn’t want to be an advocate. Because the only advocates I could think of were those who were sympathizing instead of empathizing. Advocacy can be paralyzing. It can encourage a victim mentality and trap those with chronic pain. It keeps them dependent on drugs, procedures, pills, and searching for cures. It makes them dependent on others.

Empathy is jumping in the hole with them. It’s saying, “Let’s figure out a way out of here. What can we do?” It is recognizing the reality of another’s situation to the extent that you are willing to put yourself in their reality. It empowers others to crawl out of the hole they have been in, and helps them to be able to thrive. 

When I was in my deepest pit, my doctor sat on a chair across from me and grabbed a yellow pad of paper and a pen. He asked, “Tell me about your pain. What has worked? What’s not working? What do you value? How can I help?” When I told him there was a medication that worked well for me, he lit up, “Really? Which one?” I replied, “Valium. It really takes the edge off this central nerve pain.” 

But because Dr. Gorsuch had been truly listening to me, and he understood that I valued a clear mind, my family, and a life of meaning and purpose, he didn’t take the easy way out. He didn’t just prescribe the more Valium and send me on my way. Instead, he said. “You don’t want that life. I promise you. Let’s look for other solutions. OK?” 

I’m so grateful for his empathy rather than sympathy. And that he helped me find another way.

Research studies have shown that empathy in medical care enhances clinical results. In one study with over 20,000 diabetic patients, patients treated by physicians with high empathy scores had a significantly lower rate of acute medical complications from their condition.

The same is extendable to nonphysician care for chronic conditions. 

We see this with the power of coaching: When we use a coachlike approach that prioritizes empathy, it empowers others. That is the compassionate restorative healing approach we utilize here at Override.

Posted on 
April 11, 2023

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