Okay, so some of you may already be shaking your head given the title of the post thinking “How the heck can I ‘decide’ if I have sympathy or empathy? Don’t I just feel it?”

Here’s a question, think back to a recent time when a friend or loved one shared a situation or experience with you. Did you have a visceral reaction, meaning did you re-live a similar situation and did those emotions come flooding back? Or, did you listen to what they were saying, nod your head, feel an emotion for them without the flood of emotions of re-living your own previous situation?

Sharing my own examples:

Situation #1

  • Recently a friend came to me because she did not get a promotion and she heard from someone else in the organization that she got passed up because she is pregnant. She’s going out on maternity leave in 4 months and they didn’t want to start her in a position now only for her to be out 3 months. Needless to say, I was irrate because I relieved my own situations where I had been treated in a similar manner. My blood pressure rose, I’m sure my cheeks got a bit flushed and the anger came back.

Situation #2

  • My son was sharing a story from the playground where he asked to play with some kids and they said no. But instead of going back to my own experiences [which history demonstrates would flood my body with feelings, not to mention fight or flight hormones] I decided to listen instead. I put myself in his shoes but then asked how he felt; asked what he would do if someone asked to play with him and friends next time, etc. I shared that I felt bad they told him no but also that I was proud of him for doing something else.

What’s interesting is that you may have had opposite reactions to these situations. You may have been cool-headed or empathetic in Situation #2 and flooded with emotions or sympathetic in Situation #1. I think there is a time and place for everything and also what’s important is to be aware. Be aware of your feelings. Be aware of your thoughts. Be aware of the decisions you make based on your feelings and thoughts.

We all have emotions – we are human! But we do have a choice of what we do with our emotions. Do we hold onto them? Do we give them time or weight? The more time and weight you give something the longer it stays with you. So, next time someone comes up to you with a situation or a story, be aware of what your immediate reaction is: is it sympathy or empathy? Sympathy allows you to feel more but empathy allows you to think more. And like everything in life, it’s your level of awareness of what’s needed that makes the difference.