Empathy, Sympathy or Projection!?
Updated: Jul 25, 2022
I will first start with a quick word about the difference between empathy and sympathy.
Empathy is having a shared understanding of the feelings of another perhaps because you have had a similar experience and can reflect on how you have felt – you may be able to imagine how they feel – you put yourself in their shoes. Sympathy is responding to feelings eg. sadness or sorrow for someone – for example, you may feel sadness for your friend who has experienced a loss, but you may not understand not connect with how they are feeling in the moment. Perhaps you could say “Empathy” is an “I get it”, Sympathy is “I see it”.
Both empathy and sympathy are rooted in the Greek noun “pathos” which refers to the sense of pity or compassion that can be evoked by a work of art of literature. Both are important to relationships as they deepen the bond between ourselves and others.
Sympathy is relatively natural to us if we are sensitive to the emotional signals of others, or simply listen to what they say, we can offer an appropriate response. But empathy is a little trickier. How do we seek to understand an experience we do not recognise, and further, because interpretations are so personal, can we really ever truly understand how someone feels? And if – or when we do – empathy is also the more powerful of the two, because it encourages us to help effect change, often because we can be so moved by their position.
6 ways to boost empathy
Cognitive empathy: Understanding of how others think
1. READ: Through fiction we have access not only to someone’s behaviours, but to their innermost thoughts and motivations for acting as they did. The storyline provides us with a safe space not only to reflect on our feelings with regards to their actions, but even to discuss them with others to broaden our thinking through hearing different opinions on the same text.
2. TRAVEL: By immersing yourself in the culture of others – perhaps through “homestays” or exploring away from the “tourist” areas, not only do you widen your knowledge about different lifestyles, but in conversation with those you meet, you can learn about their perception of the world. This reminds us that our viewpoint is not the only one, and we may be able to apply that thought not just cross-culturally, but in our own lives when trying to understand a dispute from different points of view. In coaching one might use a “sand-tray” style exercise where the “toys” in the sand-tray represent different people and the client is asked to explore the situation from each person’s point of view.
3. LISTEN ACTIVELY: Rather than listening in order to reply (ie. Thinking about what you are going to say), or to “top” what the other person is saying, engage with what you hear. Ask questions about what they have said or paraphrase back your understanding back to them which enables you to check that you have understood their meaning. This is also a great way to build rapport because the person speaking feels heard.
EMOTIONAL EMPATHY: Understanding of how others feel
4. “FRIEND’S SIGHT TECHNIQUE” (Shukla, 2017): When you are reflecting on a situation, ask yourself “how might X friend feel?” (You can do this to boost cognitive empathy too by asking “How might X friend see this situation”/”What might they do?”)
5. NAME EMOTIONS: The broader our vocabulary for discussing emotions, the more nuance we are able to recognise. This can be enhanced through acting exercises such as “Speak this sentence out loud as if you were [happy/sad/afraid/ill/surprised…]” By being aware of the different tones and inflexions other people can use, as well as facial expressions or body language, we become more sensitive to how they may be feeling – and this in turn may make us more confident in asking them if they are ok…or knowing not to if we just don’t want to get involved...or we sense they don't want us to!
6. Ask yourself “Is there another way I can interpret this?”: This can also be helpful in preventing us from taking things too personally, but also in recognising when we might have inadvertently behaved in a way that could have been misconstrued by someone else. By being aware that communications are only ever as effective as how they are received, we remain mindful that we might be projecting our own feelings onto a situation, rather than understanding it as it really is.
By boosting our empathy, we are better able to relate to others enabling us to understand the needs they may have as well as how our behaviours have an affect on them. Through empathy we can create a safe space for others to express themselves without judgment and without anyone “hijacking” how they feel. Empathy does not mean we need to take responsibility for others’ emotions or interpretations, but it is the key building block of compassion which drives us to positive action to improve their situation.
But what of "Projection"
I have to include this because I have had people say to me "I totally understand you" - when really all they are doing is projecting their beliefs and feelings onto me...and it is something I watch for in myself when working with students and clients.
Projection is a theory based in (love him or hate him) Freudian psychoanalysis. It is a defence mechanism whereby you are unconsciously "choosing" to not experience certain emotions or impulses, but instead attribute them to others. Like a projector, we are showing our own "image" on someone else's "screen".
This becomes problematic when those projections lead us to make assumptions about the other person which may not be true for them (but we believe it to be because we believe we "get" them). This can result in the other person feeling misunderstood, or worse, frustrated because they may have even had to "defend" their feelings rather than simply being allowed to experience them (as someone truly empathising would have allowed).
Ways to check that you are empathising rather than projecting
- Ask questions of their experience. And try to process anything "unexpected" as their feelings being different to yours, rather than a denial of what you believe to be true.
- Assume you are projecting. Ask yourself what this means for you - what areas in your life might you need to explore further?
- If someone has told you your sense of what they are feeling is "off" explore their interpretation. Yes it is possible you may be spot on, and they don't want to talk about it; Yes it is possible they may not realise they are feeling the emotion you sense and might have a revelation later on; Yes they may even be deliberately trying to confuse you. BUT, it is also that you might be bringing your emotional baggage into the situation and that could explain the intensity of your feelings; You both may indeed be feeling the emotional accurately, but you are feeling it much more deeply than they are; and simply - you may just be projecting your feelings onto the person and they don't feel at all like that. In all of those situations remember it's not about you!!!
A large part of empathy is recognising when it is NOT required!
Dr Audrey Tang is a chartered psychologist and author with a specialty in the "how to take action", rather than just giving explanation and advice. Listen to her podcast Retrain Your Brain here; and catch her practical masterclasses Psych Back to Basics on DisruptiveTV & Energy Top Up for resilience. For coaching tools based within positive psychology: click Her YouTube Channel . Twitter/IG @draudreyt