Sympathy and Empathy. A distinction.

I have never experienced empathy.  I used to think I was a sociopath.  Or at least autistic.

I’m not.  Rather, I just don’t know how to empathize.

Empathy and sympathy are nearly identical, except for in one crucial respect.

Here is how I see it.

Empathy: the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.
Sympathy: merely understanding.

I proudly experience sympathy.  I can understand why individuals feel the emotions they do.  I also feel like I sometimes feel a general “badness” when I know that they are feeling a negative emotion.  But, I cannot get inside their head to feel their pain.

When I say “I feel your pain,” it is a mere manner of speech.  I, by no means, understand what it is like to feel someone else’s mental discomfort.

I think this is because I have experienced almost no mental discomfort in my own life.  I have the fortunate blessing of being troubled by very few things.  By this, I mean two things.  First, I have had very few hardships.  Second, I respond very well to the hardships I face.

I can’t think of the last time that I was depressed.  Sometimes I cry, but I really like crying.  It feels really cathartic and reminds me that I am human.

I think that my own lack of suffering makes me unable to experience empathy because I do not have the ability to share the feelings of another.  Instead, I am forced to merely understand.  Though, I don’t think that I really understand.

Rather, I want to offer an alternative definition of sympathy:

feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else’s misfortune

I know that I feel a sort of yucky feeling when I hear a really sad story.  My ability to empathize must utilize judgments about whether I think an emotional response is justified.  I’m not sure how I make these decisions, but I think it is based on some sort of conditioning.

I wonder if empathy is the cross-application of one’s experience suffering applied to the story of another.  I also wonder what neural mechanisms are involved in sympathy/empathy.  If there is brain localization, I wonder if empathy is just a lot of empathy, or if it is a part of the brain involved with memory.

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