Let's Break it Down: We Need to Talk About Empathy vs. Sympathy

In the picture: three friends pose during Camp Rafiqi.

In the picture: three friends pose during Camp Rafiqi.

The great debate between what is sympathy, and what is empathy, continues in this month’s blog series. ETI Founder Sara Minkara is a woman with blindness. She is joined by ETI Content Writer Hillary Dolinsky, who has spent much of her career in the disabilities field and has a sibling with a learning disability. Together in conversation, Sara and Hillary breakdown what real empathy for people with disabilities looks like from their own perspective.

What is the difference between sympathy and empathy?

Sara, taking a deep breath: “To me, sympathy is like the ‘charity narrative.’ It’s easy for people to buy into and easy for people to feel good about helping others. I think about the people who come up to me and say, ‘Oh, I feel bad for you,’ or, ‘May God cure you.’ That is sympathy – it may come from a good heart, but it also comes from assumptions about what I’m going through. To be honest, being blind is not my biggest struggle. I have normal stressors like anyone else with sight. I consider my blindness a blessing to me because it has allowed me to interact with the world in a different way. People tend to focus on the blindness aspect and forget a lot of other things that I have been able to do. Sympathy is when people think they understand what it feels like to go through something, but they ultimately hope it gets fixed.”

Hillary: “Absolutely. To me, empathy is recognizing that maybe you don’t know exactly what it’s like to walk in someone else’s shoes, but you at least know that it must be important to that person going through it. You take the time to hear about that person’s experience from THEM, regardless of your own ideas or perceptions. Empathy is when you can completely remove yourself, your thoughts, and your assumptions from the situation and can really dial in at someone else’s level.”

S: “Yes….and ask questions! Give people the opportunity to tell you how they’re thinking, or what they’re going through. Listen to others. At the end of the day I cannot judge what you go through, Hillary. I can assume, but the best way to get each other empowered is to be able to listen. This is why ETI’s Integration Programs are so important in teaching empathy – we’re not trying to simulate blindness or teach about blindness by blindfolding people and having them eat a meat together. Our goal is to encourage conversations that people might not have felt comfortable having otherwise.”

What about sympathy vs. empathy towards people with disabilities?

H: “Growing up with my sister, I used to try and protect her from situations where she might not understand something. The biggest example that comes to mind is money. I used to want to make decisions for her or pay for things for her rather than have her struggle to count money or be disappointed if she realized she couldn’t afford something. But one day I realized I wasn’t giving her any credit, and I was making a lot of assumptions about what she could and couldn’t do. I, her own sister and biggest advocate, was doing what other people do to her every day. I was sympathizing for her, making assumptions about what is hard for her without even asking her what she felt. Since then my family has let my sister make her own financial decisions, and you know what? She’s learned from that. Sure, there have been times at the cash register where she took longer to count her money. There have been times where she’s overdrawn her account. But those happen less and less because she was given the opportunity to grow and learn on her own – something I assumed would be hard for her, but in the end it’s a right that everyone should have.”

S: “And that’s the same for our kids at Camp Rafiqi. Their parents fear for their kids, and want to do everything for them to make things easier. But for those children with blindness, they end up not experiencing things on their own. Yes, it will be tough at first to live independently. But from those experiences they become empowered. Empathy opens the door to allow people with disabilities to become empowered.”

H: “With my sister, I’ve debated whether I should tell other people ahead of time that she has a disability. Since her disability is an invisible one, I didn’t want her to end up in situations where she felt uncomfortable, confused, or upset. For about a year or so I told people ahead of time. They sympathized, assumed what she was capable of, and treated her totally different than me. They spoke to her loudly, and used smaller words and shorter sentences. I immediately regretted telling people before meeting her. Firstly, I was sharing something without her consent, taking away her chance to present herself. And secondly, I was also taking away valuable, ‘normal’ interactions from her that she would have had if I didn’t say something. Since then I haven’t mentioned it to anyone ahead of time, and if people ask, ‘What college did your sister go to?’ as people often do, I don’t right away explain that she has a disability. I no longer try to rationalize my sister’s differences to others – now I focus on letting real-life experiences happen.”

S: “That’s a good point. For me, I don’t have a choice. People see my cane and they know I’m blind. For my sister, her sight is stronger than mine and she’s able to choose if she wants to use a cane or not. Her thinking is, ‘why should I have to have that be the first thing people see?’ To me, my cane is a statement! I want people to get used to it.”

How can we help others practice more empathy?

S: “I prefer to have people ask questions, even if they might be silly. It allows for a conversation and dialogue to happen and we can learn from each other. Making assumptions just perpetuates the stigma around people with disabilities. When society gives you the platform to be heard and express what you’re going through, people no longer have to sympathize and wonder what you’re thinking or feeling – they know it because they asked, and you answered.”

Have more tips on how we can encourage people to practice empathy instead of sympathy? Share in the comments!