Empathy is mentioned in almost every conversation these days. It is a desired skill in leaders, caregivers, governments, and even friends!
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it has become an all the more in-demand virtue.
There are various definitions of empathy you will find:
1. Putting yourself in someone else's shoes (the most common and cliche definition)
2. The ability to understand and share the feelings of another ~ Oxford
3. The ability or practice of imagining or trying to deeply understand what someone else is feeling or what it's like to be in their situation. ~ Dictionary.com
4. The capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from within their frame of reference
All of these definitions are correct. However, sometimes it is not easy to truly understand the definition of empathy in tangible terms. Or to empathize with them!
Often it is also confusing to understand the difference between empathy and sympathy, and also apathy.
A gentleman I once met beautifully explained the meaning and difference among these through an example. I am sharing a similar example based on the coronavirus pandemic situation.
Think of the impact of the COVID pandemic at present where many people are struggling to get treatment and resources to overcome this disease. In countries like India, the situation is grim where patients are likely dying because hospitals are running out of beds, ventilators, oxygen, and medicines (e.g. Remdesivir, Tocilizumab, Fabiflu).
Now there are 3 (emotional) reactions a person may have to the above situation:
Reaction 1: "Who cares. People are dying because of their own negligence."
Reaction 2: "So sad. People are going through tough times. God help them"
Reaction 3: "People are in trouble. Let me find a way to help them" <goes on to take actions to help people out>
So, what do you think? Which one of the above would be your reaction?
And, which of the above is Apathy, Sympathy, and Empathy?
You may have rightly guessed.
Reaction 1: Apathy
Complete disconnect to other's feelings. Thus there is an aversive reaction.
Reaction 2: Sympathy
Some connect to other's feelings. However, this comes from a position of distance where the expression is present but the action is not.
Reaction 3: Empathy
In sync and connected to other's feelings. True empathy leads to action. This is because one has 'felt' and 'experienced' the same as the other person. And as one would act in their own case likewise they will act out of empathy towards others.
Next time you really want to empathize then take action. Take action to help them out. It may be a phone call to check on something, a WhatsApp forward of a distress message, connecting someone who can help, etc.
The person who really empathizes and wants to help will find innumerable actions to help.
Here are few resources (in India) that may help those in need with COVID illness: