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Empathy Versus Sympathy

A natural response to want to help someone is to give them sympathy – “I’m so sorry to hear about your diagnosis” – when really what someone diagnosed with a chronic disease may need is just for you to hear them, sit with them, and maybe hold their hand through a very difficult time.

We sometimes have no idea what to say or do, so we may feel sorry for the one diagnosed – when that can make the one diagnosed feel even worse. It can actually make them feel unheard, push them further away from you, and isolate.

Talking to someone just diagnosed

In my clinical private practice, I work with clients that have been diagnosed with a chronic disease. I’ve asked them what they need and in what ways did they feel most heard when newly diagnosed or wherever they are on their journey.

The response I receive often is that they just want to be heard and know that they are not alone. I ask them how they respond to someone who has been diagnosed with a chronic illness, and they tell me they really listen to the other person’s shock, anger, worry, and fear, and are there for the other person.

If it feels appropriate, they say that holding the person’s hands is often received well. If the person is not comfortable with having their hands held, just hearing their story helps. One’s presence is such a beautiful present for someone who may feel scared and alone.

Helping them feel heard

I was recently talking to my partner who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. He said one of the worst things someone can do is to show sympathy for what he went through or may be going through with his diagnosis. As his partner, I want to know what he needs. He has told me that just being with him and hearing him means a lot.

As a clinical mental health counselor, I’ve had clients tell me similarly that they feel heard and understood when they have the freedom to just be angry, confused, in shock, not want to be around anyone for a little while, and to not feel that they are receiving sympathy or that someone is trying to “fix it” for them. They have reported that empathy lets them know they are not alone and feel supported instead of sympathized.

Why empathy is different than sympathy

What is the difference between sympathy and empathy? Sympathy is feeling for someone (“I feel sorry for you”), while empathy is feeling with someone (“This has to be incredibly hard for you, please know that I am here for you and that you are not alone”). Empathy is putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, tuning into their feelings, and being with them. It is important to remember that being able to pay attention to someone else’s needs empathetically does not mean we forget our own needs in the process.

When someone is diagnosed with MS or a chronic disease, we may not know what to say or do. Start with empathy. Just be with them, listen, and they may feel less alone on their journey and let you know what they need after they have had time to process. We want to feel heard and understood while being who we are. We don’t have to fix anything.

Let the one diagnosed with a chronic disease know you hear them, are there for them, and that they are not alone, while being completely present with them when they are ready to talk. Choose empathy over sympathy.

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