How powerful language can be

Nov 20, 2014
Tagged with: How powerful language can be

Empathy and sympathy sound similar, look similar, and are very nearly the same words. Yet, making a distinction between them can have a huge impact in giving and receiving care.

Miriam Webster defines sympathy as the feeling that you care about and are sorry about someone else’s trouble, grief, misfortune, etc. Empathy, as defined by Miriam Webster, is the feeling that you understand and share another person’s experiences and emotions: the ability to share someone else’s feelings.

Down south, statements of sympathy often begin with, “Bless their heart.” But contained in that seemingly kind phrase is a touch of condescension, and a whiff of wow, I am glad that’s not happening to me. While sympathy can be expressed as kindness, it can also be disempowering and judgmental. Boiled down sympathy means, I am here FOR you and I am superior to you.

Empathy, on the other hand, means, “I am here WITH you.” Empathy’s main quality is humility, a sense that this could just as easily be me as it is you. The most meaningful expression of empathy is a deep, quiet, non-judgmental listening that does not pry, or seek to know for the sake of knowing, but seeks to be with the person and their experience.

Through empathy a sacred time and place are created. Both people are equal and only the present moment and place matter. The person sharing their experience is honored. Empathy holds no pity or opinion. Sifted down once again, empathy requires a ministry of presence.

I invite you to think of time when someone was with you through a painful experience. Did the person fix it? Did they make the hurt go away? Did they actually change the circumstances of what happened?

I remember telling one of my best friends about a betrayal I experienced. She listened to me and cried with me and agreed that it seemed unfair. Then she just sat with me. In her ministry of presence, I began to heal. Her empathy gave me the space to get it all out and then start again with the faith that I would be well.

In honor of the millions upon millions of caregivers in the US, informal (unpaid) and professional (paid), let’s take the time to listen to each other with the humility and presence empathy requires.


Author: Elizabeth Vander Kamp

  • bobl07

    Thank you so much for this unique perspective. Language is so important when working with people with disabilities. Because of their similarity I believe many people are not able to differentiate between the two. Thank you for making this clear.