Most people value and can accept empathy but many more, wouldn’t give a thank you for your sympathy… especially when it’s hollow, as is sometimes the case within addictions recovery support.
People who offer sympathy are simply attempting to disguise their voyeurism; using the opportunity to bask in the warmth of self-righteous satisfaction. An ideal opportunity to display their superiority over the individual they’re showering with platitudes of concern.
Sympathy: (from the Greek words syn “together” and pathos “feeling” which means “fellow-feeling”) is the perception and reaction to the distress or need of another. A concern driven by a switch in viewpoint, from a personal perspective to the perspective of another group or individual who is in need.
Empathy: the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from within the other person’s frame of reference, i.e., the capacity to place oneself in another’s position. There are many definitions for empathy that encompass a broad range of emotional states.
In short, the differences between the meanings of these two terms can be seen as: sympathy is feeling compassion, sorrow, or pity for the hardships that another person encounters, whilst empathy is putting yourself in the shoes of another. True empathy will trump sympathy every time, especially when you’re trying to support anyone experiencing situations of psychosocial disadvantage and ill health.
But too often there is also a hidden agenda at play here; one which I often describe as ‘Recovery Porn’ – the getting-off on the promotion and celebration of someone else’s achievements, to evidence your own worth and success. This trait is sadly evident within the field of addiction recovery treatment and support… “Look what I/we did, he/she got ‘better’ thanks to me/us” – not so!
Recovery is an individual achievement, one to be celebrated by the individual but only if or when they make that personal choice. Supportive services need to stop putting their ‘token’ example of ‘visible recovery’ on a pedestal. These mostly well-intentioned actions often result in creating additional pressures and consequently, our ‘icons of visible recovery’ fall from their plinth of adoration.