In the history of the concept of empathy, there has been ambiguity.   Let me point out that It is not sympathy.  Hojat  has clarified the meaning in his book, Empathy in Patient Care.  Empathy is intellectual.  Sympathy is emotional.  Empathy is one person's nonjudgemental effort to understand another person's experience.  Empathy leads to knowing another's concerns, sympathy aims to feel their emotions.  Effectively, empathy is about the other person and sympathy is about the observer.  When a healthcare provider becomes too emotionally engaged, overly sympathetic, they are within themselves.  This can muddle medical judgement and is certainly unhelpful.  In an effort to avoid being too sympathetic, they may become disengaged and cold.  This is also unhelpful.  Patients have a great need to be understood. 

For most of us there is some level of overlap between empathy and sympathy.  It is not wrong to feel sad or happy with another person, but realize that your experience is more about you than about them.  It is important to be appropriate to the situation and adjust by knowing ourselves, especially when the other person is vulnerable.  

--Dave
 


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