By: Fran Bulloff, VTI President
The words “empathy,” “compassion,” and “sympathy” are often used interchangeably, but are they the same? Yes and no. Empathy is defined as: “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.” It derives from the Greek “em”+ “pathos” which is loosely translated as, “infeeling.”
Compassion equals “sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others with a strong desire to alleviate them.” So compassion, unlike empathy, is rooted in feeling pity for the suffering of others and wanting to suffer together to help. That is quite different from empathy, which is the ability not only to understand another’s feelings of all kinds, but also to become one with that person; to put yourself in another’s shoes and try to share what she/he is going through.
Sympathy and compassion are more closely aligned, as they both involve pity and sharing sorrow for someone else’s misfortunes. If you are like me, you have completely exhausted your usual supply of sympathy cards during the pandemic and are simply writing to people: “I am so sorry for your loss. What can I do to help?” It is good to be sympathetic to the plight of others and to offer compassionate aid.
Empathy requires a different mindset than sympathy or compassion. It does not focus only on another person’s feelings of suffering or misfortune. To express empathy you must acknowledge whatever feelings are within another person and show respect, not pity. Empathy is a cornerstone of the Validation method developed by Naomi Feil. To learn Validation, you must train yourself to be empathetic. Validation provides disoriented older adults with an empathetic listener, someone who does not judge or pity them, but instead accepts their view of reality. Empathy is not an act; it is a genuine effort to share the emotional journeys of people in order to validate their feelings. Understanding another person’s unique emotions and finding a way to join with him/her are so important to both parties. Knowing they are not alone is essential to building trust, helping relieve anxiety, and restoring dignity and self-worth in older adults with dementia-type cognitive loss.
Developing into an empathetic person requires some effort and commitment. Like any skill, empathy requires practice to develop properly. Judging others is a hard habit to change, but the empathetic listener must learn to change himself/herself rather than the other person. By expanding your range of ability to share other peoples’ feelings without judging them, you can also develop better and more trusting relationships with others around you. If you have a chance, watch the TED talk video from the presentation that Naomi Feil gave in Amsterdam in 2015 in which she transforms herself into various disoriented people and their caregivers in order to show the power of empathy in Validation. This week I am thankful for the pioneering work Naomi Feil has done to train generations of caregivers in person-centered care.