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Balanced Empathy, Compassion, and Boundaries: The Missing Ingredients in the Empathy vs. Sympathy Discussion

By Claire Fultz, DSW, MSc, MSW, LCSW-C, CCM

Many discussions have taken place on the difference between empathy and sympathy. Arguably one of the most famous takes on this topic was Dr. Brene Brown’s animated RSA Short. In her video, Dr. Brown beautifully illustrates how sympathy drives disconnection and power imbalances while genuine empathy builds closeness and inclusion. She teaches us about facing our own vulnerabilities to create that genuine connection with others and to feel what others are feeling (emotional empathy) as opposed to merely being able to identify (or regret) the feelings of others (sympathy).  

Creating genuine connection through emotional empathy and not sympathy is an important, yet incomplete discussion – particularly for caregivers, providers, service professionals, and those whose roles require relating to others on an ongoing basis. When facing our vulnerabilities and connecting emotionally with other individuals, our boundaries may become blurred, bringing inherent risks to our mental wellness, personal resilience, and ability to continue caring and connecting. We are at greater risk for burnout, compassion fatigue, and secondary traumatic stress. The focus thus becomes not how to define or build empathy vs sympathy, but instead how to create those empathetic connections without cost to personal resiliency or sacrificing oneself.  

It is in this new, expanded focus we find the missing ingredients of the widely held empathy vs sympathy conversation – sustained meaningful connection with others requires not empathy vs sympathy, but balanced amounts of emotional empathy (feeling another’s feelings), cognitive empathy (understanding another’s emotions), compassion (caring about another person’s wellbeing), and self-care (preserving your own wellbeing). It is a balance only achieved through defining and maintaining appropriate boundaries. When you take intentional actions to set and reinforce the physical and emotional limits necessary to protect others from becoming vulnerable and protect yourself from becoming over or under involved, everyone will feel understood, respected, and connected.  

Ask yourself: 

  • Do you recognize and respect your own boundaries as well as those of others? 
  • Do you show yourself the same support, compassion, and care that you give to others? 
  • What messages are your feelings and body sensations giving you before, during, and after helping someone? Do you feel fulfilled? Energized? Exhausted? Resentful? Irritable? Where do you feel it in your body? 
  • Are you scheduling breaks? 
  • Do you make decisions solely based on how someone else will react, ignoring other factors? 
  • Do you take time to check in with yourself and recognize your limits? What limits are you and aren’t you permitting to be crossed? 
  • As you think of a particular situation in which you provide support to someone, who is the person you want to be and what are the behaviors you want to demonstrate in that scenario? 
  • Do you currently have the necessary boundaries for that to be possible and sustainable? What additional limits may you need to set? 
  • Do you take steps towards creating a structure in which you can thrive? 
  • Where/how do you spend your time and energy? 
  • How do those choices align with your values?  

Taking some time to think about where you are currently within this crucial balance of ingredients can help you determine your next steps in defining and setting needed boundaries. Indeed, empathy, not sympathy, fosters connections by breaking down walls, but for caregivers, service professionals, and providers, survival also depends on leaving particular walls intact.

Claire Fultz, DSW, MSc, MSW, LCSW-C, CCM is the Director of Mental Health at Jewish Community Services.

Jewish Community Services (JCS) is dedicated to providing programs and services that help people of all ages and backgrounds achieve their goals and enhance their wellbeing.

To learn more, visit jcsbalt.org or call 410-466-9200.

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