Sympathy is Essential to Empathy
Updated: Mar 19, 2022
People who have adopted such ideologies as Buddhism, pacifism, and non-violent communication, believe that “sympathy” lacks the compassion of empathy. But, sympathy isn’t about compassion. “Passing Judgment…giving unasked advice…only noticing surface level issue…understanding only from your own perspective…Ignoring or suppressing your own emotions.” This is a complete misconstruction of definition, because from the neurological and pragmatic perspective, the descriptor is apathetic! Sympathy is about kindness, which is distinctly different from compassion. Further, Dr. Brené Brown at the U of Houston fails miserably in her assertion, "Empathy fuels connection” …"Sympathy drives disconnection." Her shortsighted mistake is, she sees empathy as the of opposite of sympathy. She is defining indifference and apathy, that are the opposite of both compassion and kindness. The importance of true empathy is that we simply cannot access cognitive empathy without somatic sympathy. And, there are thousands of examples of this, which occur every day to prove it.
⁃ The firefighter who runs into a burning building.
- The soldier who runs toward enemy fire to save her brothers and sisters.
- The child who defends a friend attacked by bullies.
These are not examples of empathy. Rather, they are standard manifestations of sympathy. This is because sympathy must occur before cognitive empathy can becomes conscious! What Dr. Brown and many other psychologists miss is that they confuse apathy, indifference, and cynicism with sympathy. So, their conclusion is that “sympathy must be bad, so thus empathy is good.” There is more than one problem with this glaring mistake. Here is an accurate assessment of the comparison and contrasts of what is sympathy versus what is Empathy:
- Sympathy is observant and active: “I see your pain, and I’m sorry. I will (or) may I help by intervening, because I see how it hurts you, so I can help stop or end it?” It can be considered a part of “Bodily Kinetic Intelligence” as well as “Interpersonal Intelligence.” (Howard Gardner).
- Empathy is sensorial and interactive: “I feel your suffering and I’m sorry. I will (or) may I help by allowing me sharing it, because it hurts me as yourself, as I assimilate it?” It can be considered a part of “Emotional Intelligence” as well as “Interpersonal Intelligence.” (Howard Gardener). Sympathetic reactions are a result of the sympathetic nervous system, where stress hormones are controlled. Sympathetic reactions occur in reaction to stimuli under threat to self, or in reaction to harm to another. It is an instinctual “knee jerk” reaction, but is essential to both our personal and communal survival instincts. And for this reason, it is essential to a person to provide aid to self and others under times of stress. Adam Smith was the first to ponder this in his writings, (and has become a theory of libertarianism, that has no foundation in the actual function of sympathy as a pathology nor somato-socio operations). But, incorrectly associated with conservatism, Sympathy has no such bounds. 
Sympathetic reaction does not feel but witnesses, understands, and desires to alleviate the suffering of pain, so is motivated to help end the pain that causes suffering. Empathy relates directly to the suffering itself. The empathic response is to feel suffering of the victim directly, thus helping the sufferer by “sharing it” from the victim, to help them heal.
Functionally, sympathy and empathy should work together, in tandem, to help both the person suffering, and the interventionist. Both are both active and interactive. Empathy cannot occur unless a “sympathetic reaction” occurs in advance: sympathy is always the trigger to action before an empathic response, regardless, if the person reacting to stimulus is aware of it. The misunderstanding is ignoring the fact that sympathy occurs as an instantaneous reaction, that is required, particularly, if it is to be followed by an empathetic response to that reaction: sympathy always precedes empathy! I reference this as a union: “Sym-Empathy.”
Yeah, yeah, sure buddy… So, the obvious rebuttal to the order of sympathy followed by empathy is this. “I never have a sympathetic response to someone in pain. I help them because I feel for them, and that’s what a good and ethical person does – that’s empathy.”
Well, this is correct. You feel something. But, what you feel first is a gut reaction that releases is “cortisol,” followed by an adrenal and endorphin response when you react to a person in need. In that moment, you are simply reacting to someone in pain. IE: Say you are listening to your friend tell you a story about someone suffering. This story may make you feel anxious, and you want to leave. Or, you sense an altruistic impulse to react, as if wanting to “jump in” to the story to help. What usually occurs immediately, is a release of cortisol, the “fight or flight” hormone. That’s a sympathetic reaction. The body will usually not allow you to stay in that state, and you consciously understand that it’s a story, not present occurrence. (And, the body realizes that to much adrenaline and cortisol releases will result in bad health, as cortisol is also a stress hormone). So, then you feel compassion for the characters in the story “feeling their pain.” This is a release of oxytocin, “the love hormone.”). You react to elements of the story with an adrenal reaction, even if minutely. You respond with a oxytocin response, because you want to help them. In the case of reacting to others, whether as intense as an accident, or as benign as coffee with a friend, and even in cases of falling in love: first reactions are cortisol based not oxytocin and other hormones. And here’s the kicker: cortisol release is a sympathetic reaction of kindness, by the “flight or fight” limbic system. Yes, a double-edged sword…the same hormone release in times of violence or conflict! But the other edge of that sword actually is not violence, it is compassion. The release of oxytocin is directly involved with empathy.
The Sym-Empathic Impulse to Care for Self and Others.
Empathy is understanding and caring about what another person is going through, because we instinctually put ourselves in another's place. But this cannot occur until we sympathize with them. Sympathy is immediate, an instantaneous reaction of visceral kindness. But empathy is a bit rarer; a person suffering, is neither the object nor subject of empathy. We are mere witnesses, and if sane, we react sympathetically. Only then the are we the generators of empathy. Therefore, when we witness another person’s or people’s struggles, a functional human being will, by neurological function, first react sympathetically and only then empathetically. The mistake is to believe that sympathy is some dull cousin to empathy, when in truth, it is part and parcel of it. As witnesses, if we have been in a similar situation as a person suffering, a memory can be triggered that will elicit an empathetic response. But, we cannot actually know what that person is experiencing. because we are not them. Therefore, sympathy is always the unconscious reaction to what a person or people are going through, with or without having gone through a similar experience oneself. What initiates and creates an impulsive instinctual reaction to selflessly care for that person, is a sympathetic reaction, So it is more than a conscious response. It is an empathic response to assimilate what we observe and experience an approximation about what another person is feeling.
Without sympathetic reaction, empathy cannot response. Empathy can only be accessed after the witness reacts with sympathy. As witness-cum-actors, we sympathetically respond. Then, if we are realized human beings, we can see ourselves as that other person.
Thus, sympathy is an essential pre-cursor to empathy:
⁃ Sympathy: reacting and acting upon stimulus. This can be referenced as “Somatic Kindness.”
⁃ Empathy: feeling and imagining oneself in another person's place. This can be referenced as “Cognitive Compassion.”
Sympathy Contrasted with Empathy Linguistically, this misunderstanding of the nature of kindness and compassion is revealed as a shining example of why people also misuse the term "empathy" when they really mean sympathy. Further, they misinterpret and falsely define apathy as sympathy. Empathy, that occurs when a sympathetic reaction is complete, is a conscious practice of caring for another in one's mind and/or followed by interaction that is sympathetic. Nurses, EMTs, Emergency Care doctors all are examples of professions that rely upon sympathy to ply their trade, often stifling empathy so they can focus upon the next person suffering. Subsequently, these professions deal quite a bit of stress. Sympathy is an immediate gut reaction to the pathology of another person and their situation. In its immediacy, it is as important than empathy. Therapists, long term care doctors, and elder care professionals are all examples of those who go through sympathy to rely upon but maintain empathy to ply their trade. Subsequently, these professions not only deal stress, but also grief and sadness of loss.
Sympathy requires an embodied hard-wired ability towards care. Empathy requires the same, but with the conscious desire to put oneself in another's place. Ergo, without sympathy, there can be no empathy.
“Kindness,” which is the basis for sympathy, is entirely somatic, and a part of our natural survival instinct and limbic function. Kindness isn't taught, it is innate in everyone. “Compassion,” which is the basis for empathy, is entirely cognitive. It is based in the cerebral cortex, the part of the brain responsible for consciousness. It is a part of our intuitive and learned desire to love beyond ourselves. Compassion is learned, but our capacity for it is innate in everyone.
How Apathy and/or Burnout Dismantles Sym-Empathy Sympathy and Empathy can be unlearned or made dormant, through exposure to cruelty and trauma. This is common in many abused, self-centered, antipathetic, or apathetic people. The abused becomes the abuser, often borderline or narcissistic in their behavior. Ergo, Sym-Empathy, can fall into atrophy in the mentally ill, sociopaths or psychopaths. If people cannot experience sympathy, an empathic response is impossible. So, without a sympathetic reaction, empathy is usually forced.
What often seems like sympathetic reaction, are often examples of apathy and disinterest by those who are callous to others in need. The result is a dissociative lack of reaction, or a cynical dismissing of suffering. In other instances, they are reactions of fear, anger or suffering. These occur in the same area of the brain as sympathy, but are an inverse reaction to stimuli. In either case, they are in no way sympathetic reactions, and thus can have no relation or access to empathy. It is also why sympathy is often confused with apathy.
Empathy can be either stifled by apathy or by antipathy. Many sociopaths, simply cannot react to others pain, therefore, have little or no sympathetic reactivity and have no kind response towards incidents or others’ suffering. They cannot “feel” or have compassion towards others, as cortisol is limited in limbic reaction and nor is there a cerebral thalamic response. Others react negatively in what may at first seem like sympathy, and may cause more harm, and virtually live in a cortisol/adrenal driven state of hypervigilance, and obviously cannot access the sym-empathetic union either. Sane and complete human beings, naturally use the sym-empathic union as a system that functions in tandem. But this is not true for those who are trouble or worse, unbalanced.
Empathy is essential for the continued care of victims and suffering. But, if sympathy is suppressed or shut-down, empathy cannot be learned or accessed. The lack of both, becomes a projection of apathy and indifference. This is also why sympathy is often confused with apathy. When the limbic function reaction is reversed, (for example, in times of war), the person will react with fear or defensiveness, and antipathy.
Apathy and Antipathy are the results of the abuse the perpetrators of abuse pass on to their victims, or the victims of other perpetrators. Much of the world has unlearned hardwired kindness (sympathy) and then learned apathy/indifference, antipathy/intolerance, as opposed to compassion (empathy). For them, there is simply no way to learn compassion without first re-awakening our hardwired functioning of kindness and limbic sympathetic response systems. Without sympathy, no empathy. As a culture, we have desensitized ourselves to sympathy, but more so with empathy. Because empathy is magnetizing to the mind and sympathetic responses are a corporeal function, there are only so many hours in a day to use them to care for others. Thus, the initial stressors of both, often lets us forget to take care of ourselves. Video games, wars against heinous foes, crime, and violence on such a mass scale that "compassion fatigue," sociopathic indifference, or even sadism results. These have caused many of us to be callous and uncaring. Further, stress and PTSD are major causes of such fatigue in many may over-clock and expend reserves of energy in one's mind and body. Our limbic sympathetic reactions cause addiction to adrenaline, endorphins and cortisol. So, it is no wonder we blur the lines between sympathy and empathy. “Being all things to all people", Such stress can cause a numbing indifference to situations that require sym-empathy, simply because kind compassionate people get "sucked in" by the adverse situations of others…and we can simply shut down.
When the sympathetic reaction to pain and suffering is numbed, there is simply no way an empathetic reaction can occur. However, many people can experience sympathy, do and feel the horror of other's pain. But, if adrenaline is exhausted, they may have little or no empathy, which is the learned response that "takes over" when sympathy is spent. If we don't learn empathy by the parental and social influences, we do not function as fully active members of society. When, empathetic people go on with their lives, they are often deeply affected by the events they've witnessed, and struggle with stress related somatic reactions.
The problem in mistaking apathy for sympathy, and the lack of empathy for callous indifference, often occurs because we do not take care of ourselves- even psychologists are confused by this. Indeed, therapists usually are in the front line of compassion fatigue. If we learn to temper our reactions and responses, we can learn to be kind to ourselves and allow our parasympathetic response system to inform us when it’s time to take a break.
Empathy as a learned response.
Empathy is learned response, and therefore is a conscious decision of high brain function. But, unlike sympathy, it does little to alleviate physical and often mental suffering in real time. If a person does not learn empathy, they cannot continue to help others. Though we are all born with the capacity to be empathetic, it has to be demonstrated and taught by others as a societally affirmed response.
For example, if someone witnesses an accident, has a sympathetic reaction, and helps the victim, which is soon followed by a cognizant response, they have invested their conscious awareness into an empathic state. But because empathy occurs only after an initial sympathetic reaction, such an empathic response becomes functional. And this is because empathy is learned and practiced. When sympathy is engaged by a release of hormones by the brain when witnessing tragedy, it is a stress related function. At times of rest, it is relieved by a parasympathetic reaction. But empathy is related to emotional release hormones such as oxytocin.And, the mind must also rest. And the “reaction/response’ complex needs to rest as well. These are also
So, according to neuroscience, the very meaning of the phrase, "sympathetic reaction" is based upon limbic functional response. If empathy was a motor response, then there would be no such thing as socio-pathology, and those who display a lack of empathy would have no further remorse for mistakes and inappropriate responses. Sympathy is a motor response that governs how we react and informs how we respond to suffering. Fortunately, because sympathy is somatically innate, and empathy is cognitively learned, there are relatively few people cannot display sym/empathy. Sympathy is a high somatic function, where empathy is a high cognitive function that, in most people, is learned at a young age.
To conclude, there is no proof that empathy is neuro-somatic, but tons of evidence that it is learned through observation of socio-cultural influence, ethics, acculturation, and acceptance of a societal moral codes.Sympathy is based in the motor-cortex and limbic system. Empathy is primarily a learned thalamic and cerebral response, supported by socio-cognitive behavior, which is hardwired.
Three Ascending Levels of Human Response to Critical Stimuli.
The three levels of human response to conflicts, critical incidents and suffering,social interactions from affirmative to amorous. FRS: Functional Response Systems: here is measured each level from Anti-functional, Malfunctional, Dysfunctional, to Fully-functional Response Systems:
(1) Antipathy / Loathing Antipathy / Loathing
(3) Sympathy & Empathy.
(1) Antipathy / Loathing. Antipathy / Loathing
(1a) Hatred: The corruption and confusion of love – an attraction to someone or
Something, possibly to do harm. An attachment aggregate emotional of anger,
fear and/or vengeance. (Anti-functional response.)
(1b) Disgust: Revulsion. A desire to be away from someone. An attachment to
discomfort with a person or object. (Anti-functional response.)
(1c) Dislike: Distaste or deference. A deference against someone or something. Attachment to preferences. (Anti/non-functional response.)
(2) Indifference/Apathy: (Non-Functional to Partially Functional response.)
(2a) Sociopathic Disinterest: an inability to feel emotion.
(2b) Cognizant Apathy: the conscious choice to not care (Dys/anti-functional
(2c) Attention Deficit, Carelessness & Unconscious Distraction: lack of
awareness of environment and/or difficulties. (Malfunctional response.)
(3) Sympathy & Empathy (fully functional response systems):
(3a) Sympathy: the immediate understanding of an observed difficulty.
(Non-optional. Neuro-somatic response.)
(3b) Sympathetic Reaction: an instinct to care about others well-being.
(Non-optional. Neuro-somatic response.)
(3c) Empathy: the ability to -feel- others pain, but only as oneself understands it.
(Optional response: in accordance to cognizant choice.)
(3d) Empathetic Response: the ability to place oneself in the circumstances of
another person. (Optional response: in accordance to cognizant
(3e) Sympathetic Action: the semi-conscious desire to continue action upon
Witnessed circumstances. (Non-optional: Neuro-somatic response.)
See future article on “Self-Informing Cognitive Systems.”
Discussion of Parts of the Three Levels:
Sympathy (3a, b & e) is an embodied response to witnessing a difficult situation. It is an embodied, somatic, and instinctively based, “gut” reaction. It is both an unconditioned and conditioned response that sits squarely in the functioning of the limbic system, centered in both thalami just beneath the cerebrum. It is the function that makes a grandmother who has witnessed a person getting pinned under a car, that causes her adrenaline to flow so much that she is able to lift that car off the victim, no matter what consequence there is to herself. It is what makes a soldier dive atop a live grenade, sacrificing himself to save his brothers. It is what causes a fireman to rush squarely into flames to save victims. It is a semi-cognizant reaction and is the precursor to empathy.
Empathy (3c & d) is a conscious functioning of the desire to fully understand what a victim may feel emotionally. It is based in the portion of the brain called the right supramarginal gyrus. It is a higher function because it is conscious, will-based response to circumstances. However, it only indirectly can help solve a victim’s environmental and bodily difficulties, but much to help solve emotional and mental difficulties. If a person takes the time to be empathic towards someone how is physically injured, and does nothing, the victim may become further victimized. But if the person is in stress, emotional and/or cognitive suffering, empathy can be of large benefit. However, if the empathy is fully functional when practice with action and intent. Ergo it follows that sympathy and empathy are required to work together to achieve maximal result.
One note about the dysfunctional systems: There are only two of these systems can fully out-and-out dangerous, it is the only totally non-functional response system, (the others can be repaired through counseling and other resources): 2a: Sociopathic response. These people don't love, hate, or feel anything in between. People who hate may occasionally kill or do harm, but they usually feel remorse. People who are apathetically sociopathic can be prone to do harm to others, to feel something – anything, but failure. The other is (1a). Hate. A person who hates, cannot see that he or she has distorted their love by attaching themselves to fear, anger, and vengeance. These people are also at risk of committing harm to others. The rest of (1) and (2) are not good. But, most of the harm they do is usually only to themselves. Co-Sympathetic-Empathic Response (4) - The convergence of Sympathy and Empathy as co-arising and co-interdependent. - The fusing of both somatic reaction and cognitive response to stimuli. I didn’t include this in the list above, because as far as I know, this doesn’t exist in many human beings yet. For these people, Sympathy does not precede empathy, but occurs simultaneously with it. One day maybe it will do so in most human beings. Until then we must work toward it as an evolutionary leap.
Co-Sym/Empathy: Sympathy and Empathy as Co-interdependent Social Reactions and Responses.
I think if you look at the above 3 levels of human response, I think it is like what, for example, a grieving spouse may experience in the aftermath of her/his partner’s death. She or he might become numb, and experience different amounts of indifference. Indifference can replace sympathy-to empathy responses. This may be why the importance of sympathy is so misunderstood, and what it reveals about the hardening of modern human reaction and response to trauma inflicted upon others. It is imperative as we work toward caring for each other and oneself by first understanding that sympathy is a part of empathy. And, therefore, Kindness is a part of Compassion. And, our Sympathetic Body, is a part of our Empathetic Mind. 2012, 2022 © Philip S. Rosemond,
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