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EP. 174 Is it Possible to be Too Empathetic?

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Welcome to a new week on the Hope Rescue Podcast. This week we are discussing the differences between two words: sympathy and empathy. Is it possible to be too empathetic? Keep reading or listening to find out!

The word “sympathy” is in scripture, but the word “empathy” is not.

1 Peter 3:8 says, "Finally, all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind.”

In the original Greek, the word for sympathy here is “sumpathés” and it means to mutually commiserate or have compassion for one of another.

In Hebrews 4:15 we find a different Greek word used to describe sympathy which is “sumpatheó” and it means to to have a fellow feeling with or feel compassion for another.

Hebrews 4:15 says, "For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.”

The word “empathy” wasn’t coined until the 20th century in 1908, and it means to feel into or share the feelings of another person.

The issue with empathy and feeling what another person feels, is that we don’t actually know exactly what the other person is feeling. We may think we know because of past experiences, but no two experiences are ever exactly the same, and we may project our past feelings and experiences onto our hurting friend. This can actually get in the way of helping and listening to a friend because we’ve made assumptions about how they are feeling internally.

Galatians 6:1 says, "Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted.” When we feel sympathetic, we commiserate but are not personally affected. When we empathize, we are personally affected and it can fog our vision regarding how to restore our friends.

We are not saying that it’s wrong or bad to feel empathetic for another person, it just may not be the most effective way to love and restore another person.

Empathy may cause us to not consider the full scope of what’s happening. If a friend comes to us in pain and we feel empathy for them, we may try to help them without actually acknowledging how our advice will affect everyone involved.

When empathy is taken to its greatest extreme, we can start affirming our friends' toxic, immoral, or even illegal behavior because we have empathized so deeply with what they are experiencing. Our love for our friends should be strong enough to care about where they are but love them enough to want them to grow and mature to a different place.

To help our friends in need, we must remain neutral when dealing with emotional experiences. When we personalize our friends’ feelings and emotions, it prevents us from helping our friends in the most effective manner. Instead, have sympathy. Come alongside them, commiserate with them, and help them move towards healing.

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