Sympathy, Empathy and the Ignoramus


I  read this heartbreaking post by Teen Librarian Toolbox and it got me thinking (let’s face it; everything and anything gets me thinking) about the lack of mainstream knowledge there seems to be around the concepts of sympathy and empathy. The post was about the author’s daughter and the struggles she faced with being ‘too sensitive’. As a ‘too sensitive’ person, the subject of the post really resonated with me.

I am easily upset. Like, ridiculously. Someone could have said something FIVE DAYS PRIOR and I’ll still be thinking about it; picking it over, analysing why they said it, what way I was supposed to take it. Whether my initial reaction to the event was rational. Whether it accurately portrayed what I wanted to convey. Whether the person who said it knew what they were saying, or whether they intended to upset me. It’s ironic, really; sometimes I’ll pick over things I’ve  said and they’ll get the same level of intense rumination and usually the person I said it to has no recollection of those words coming out of my mouth.   That’s not to say I’ve never said things that upset other people and not realised until I was later told – I most certainly have, as everyone has at some point in their lives. Words are the most powerful tool we have as humans, and yet we often don’t realise the effects we can cast on the lives of others.

What does that rambling have to do with absolutely anything you started this post off with, I hear you ask?

Well, as in that post I mentioned above, the importance of empathy in every day life is crucial to minimising as much hurt as possible.

Empathy is, according to Psychology Today:

 the experience of understanding another person’s condition from their perspective.

Sympathy, by contrast, is,

feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else’s misfortune.
Why am I explaining this at all? Simply because people often get them mixed up. Empathy is the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. If one is in a position where a ‘sensitive person’ (or any person because we are all human and most of us are capable of being hurt by other people’s words) comes forward and says that something that individual has said has hurt that ‘sensitive person’, empathy is the ability to see it from the ‘sensitive person”s perspective. It is the ability to see why one’s words may have hurt someone else.
Sympathy, on the other hand, is just plain feeling sorry for the ‘sensitive person’ but not actually being able to see it from their perspective. One may feel sorry that the ‘sensitive person’ is that easily offended or upset. They may pity their sensitivity. However, sympathy isn’t necessarily a negative thing. Sympathy is useful in situations where a person actually cannot put themselves in the shoes of another – whether in the case of a friend losing a loved one, or encountering an individual that is suffering from a mental or physical illness that the person cannot even  begin to fathom. In that case, without personal experience, empathy is almost impossible. Empathy appears to come with experience. It comes with actual, active understanding, and perhaps an ability to replicate the feelings one imagines,or can suppose, another is experiencing.


So where does ignorance come into this equation?

I’ve been thinking about that. Not just because of the post I read, but because of a situation where I heard (second hand) of someone plaintively suggesting they ‘were empathetic’ but that they ‘didn’t care’ (the context of this situation doesn’t particularly matter in this instance; it’s more the oxymoron of empathy vs dismissal that I have been mulling over for a few days).

It is impossible. To experience. Empathy. And simultaneously. Not. Care. 

So, ignorance.

Simply put, it is

lack of knowledge and information

Then there is wilful ignorance, which is a psychological I am a psychology student and I hate using the word psychological because of the way it is bandied around as a synonym for emotional and it drives me absolutely mental social theory driven by confirmation bias ( Which ‘is a tendency to search for or interpret information in a way that confirms one’s preconceptions, leading to statistical errors’). Basically, it just means a person ignores any information given to them, or decides to interpret the information in a way that supports their existing ideas. To bring us back to the original post, for a person to conclude a ‘sensitive person’ is  ‘too sensitive’, they are ignoring -wilfully- the possibility that their words were hurtful, and instead chooses to interpret the fact a ‘sensitive person’ has brought up the fact their words hurt them as a product of the person’s sensitivity instead of accepting or at least understanding the impact their words had on them.

So to apply that to, well, everything – the person that refuses to ‘accept’ the existence of mental illness is wilfully ignoring all the signs that point to Lauderdale the cold, hard, fact that illness exists. The person that concludes a person is ‘too sensitive’ is wilfully ignoring their own dickheadedness. The person that claims to have empathy, but claims to also not care, is wilfully ignoring their own use of an oxymoron and their own status as an insolent ignoramus (due to the gross misuse of the word ’empathy’ in the first place).

That’s not to say empathy isn’t hard. To be empathetic is difficult. It is almost always a conscious process. It is human nature to want to be wilfully ignorant, particularly in cases where one doesn’t want to admit to being in the wrong, or acknowledge any sort of blame. Ignorance in general isn’t necessarily a negative thing (which you can read more about here). If you can’t be empathetic, at least try to be sympathetic. And if you can’t do either – try be responsible for your words. As I’ve been taught, we are only responsible for 50% of every interaction. If it was the case that every person could try take responsibility for their own words and their own actions, empathy would come a lot faster – and wilful ignorance would be less of a point of conjecture in social theory.


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