IAAM: Sympathizing, Empathizing, Identifying

Posted by Doc
Jul 02 2009

[This is fiction. Any resemblance to individuals living or otherwise is purely coincidental.  Really.]

Joan’s phone starting ringing insistently. Joan thought for a moment, since she was watching her favorite reality TV show, and that was her time to just disconnect. In spite of her preferences, Joan decided to answer the phone.

“Joan?” She heard her friend Nancy’s voice, and her heart skipped a beat. Nancy was sobbing. “Nancy? What’s wrong honey?”

“They fired me, Joan! They fired me!”

“Joanie…” sobbing “…they said that I just wasn’t living up to their expectations.”

“Oh, Nancy…”

Now let’s talk about Joan’s possible reactions…

Each of us has a different reaction, and each of us offers a different response based on that reaction*. For the moment, I want to talk about three types of reaction and response: sympathy, empathy, and identification.

Reaction: Sympathy

Response: “Oh, Nancy… that’s terrible. You must feel miserable.  I can only imagine how that feels. Would you like to come over and talk?”

Reaction: Empathy

Response: “Oh, Nancy… I feel terrible. I can’t believe it! I’ll come over and let’s talk about what we can do.” Joan cries.

Reaction: Identification

Response: “Oh, Nancy. Those bastards! After all you’ve done for them, and how hard you’ve worked. You gave your all to that company, and this is how they treat you? I’m devastated.”

Nancy cries.

Joan cries.

Up to this point, sympathy, empathy, and identification sound a lot alike. In all three versions, Joan has an emotional reaction that leads to a behavior – her response. In each case, her response is subtly different. Note that in the following discussion, I am not making a judgment about better versus worse, or good versus bad… I’m working on achieving understanding and recognizing that each type of reaction and response deserves and requires a different response from me.

In being sympathetic, Joan’s response is separate. Joan is clear that what is happening to Nancy is about Nancy, not about Joan. While Joan may feel sad or angry, it is on behalf of her friend. From Nancy’s perspective, there is a little bit of distance between them. Joan’s feelings are moderate.

In being empathetic, Joan’s response is collective. Joan feels what she believes Joan feels, including the pain, indignation, and so forth. For Joan, what is happening is also happening to her, emotionally. From Nancy’s perspective, it’s like a resonation, which may increase the level of her feelings. To a certain extent, Joan’s reaction becomes an extension of Nancy’s reaction. Joan’s feelings are intense, although she recognizes that they are about Nancy.

In identifying with Nancy, Joan takes on Nancy’s feelings and reactions. Joan’s response is intense and personal, as though she were the one who had been fired. Nancy may be taken aback by the intensity of Joan’s reaction, as Joan takes on some of Nancy’s emotional response. Joan behaves as if she were the one who had been fired, and will react to others as if she were the victim as much as Nancy.

To see how this works, let’s add Joan’s husband Mark to the story…

“Joan? What’s going on?”


“It’s Nancy. She got fired today. I feel so bad for her. She’s so upset.”

“That sucks. What’s she going to do?”

“I don’t know yet. I may have to spend some time with her.  I hope that’s okay with you.”


“It’s Nancy. She got fired today. I’ve got to go over there to be with her right now!” Sobbing

“That sucks. What’s she going to do?”

“I don’t know yet, but I just know how horrible she feels and that I have to go be with her. It’s so painful! Doesn’t this upset you?”


“It’s Nancy. She got fired today. I’ve got to go over there to be with her right now!” Sobbing

“That sucks. What’s she going to do?”

“They treated her like dirt! How can you be so calm?  Don’t you care? They were unfair and cruel. I don’t know what we’re going to do, but we’re going to do something to show them!”

Note that Joan’s response to Mark escalates from Sympathy to Empathy to Identification. In the latter, Joan feels that what has happened to Nancy has happened to her, and thus she expects the same kind of reaction from Mark that she’d expect if she had been fired.

This post is long enough.  Now I’m going to go off and think about the differences in responses to each of the three.


  • an inclination to support or be loyal to or to agree with an opinion; “his sympathies were always with the underdog”; “I knew I could count on his …
  • sharing the feelings of others (especially feelings of sorrow or anguish)
  • a relation of affinity or harmony between people; whatever affects one correspondingly affects the other; “the two of them were in close sympathy”
  • http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/sympathy



  • the attribution to yourself (consciously or unconsciously) of the characteristics of another person (or group of persons)
  • a process by which one ascribes to oneself the qualities or characteristics of another person.
  • A person’s association with or assumption of the qualities, characteristics, or views of another person or group.

*Reaction vs. Response

For the purposes of this discussion, I’m defining “reaction” as the emotional or physical effect that occurs without thinking, and “response” as the chosen action or thought that occurs after the reaction. That is, if I put my hand in a fire, pulling my hand out is a reaction – I don’t think about it – while swearing about it is a response.

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