April 14, 2020

Understanding of the similar concepts of sympathy and empathy is lacking.  Misconceptions and disagreements about both pervade our discourse.  Many see one being either superior, more desirable, or inherently positive and the other negative, as if opposites.  It is NOT a question of sympathy VS empathy, but rather a recognition of both being two sides of the same coin, with every human being capable of experiencing and expressing both.   


On December 6, 1968, the 12th episode of Star Trek’s third and final season aired.  “The Empath” features a young mute female nicknamed “Gem” who, together with Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock and Dr. McCoy, is subjected to a series of experiments conducted by the Vians.  The plot centers on whether Gem’s planet should be saved in the face of an impending supernova expected to destroy the entire star system.  Gem, like others of her race, is an Empath who through touch can transfer to herself the physical and emotional suffering of another providing near instantaneous relief to the one touched.  Despite this ability, Gem suppresses it in favor of her much stronger need for self-preservation.


The point of the Vian experiments is to determine whether Gem and her people can replace the need for individual self-preservation with self-sacrifice. Their empathic abilities give them this choice to ensure the long-term survival of her race.  The members of the Enterprise crew serve as examples to Gem as each demonstrates his own willingness to sacrifice himself, even to death, for the others.  Ultimately, Gem and her planet are saved, yet the Vians themselves are proven to be devoid of sympathy, empathy, or any emotion. They stood in cold judgement of these qualities in others. 


In his May 22, 2015 post for Psychology Today, Neel Burton M.D., a psychiatrist living and working in Oxford, England, described four primary reactions individuals have when confronted with the plight of another.  He ranked these reactions in terms of the associated level of interpersonal engagement from lowest to highest:

Pity–a conscious acknowledgement of the distress of another. 

Sympathy–a feeling of care and concern for another with a wish to see him/her happier and healthier. 

Empathy–a sharing in emotion and pain with another as if it were one’s own.

Compassion–an active desire to ease the suffering of another.


In the Star Trek episode, we see examples of all four:


The Vians show pity for Gem.  They recognize the dire situation that faces her planet, yet there is no genuine emotional concern for her, or for any other planet in the system.  Rather, they are only interested in analytically determining which race should survive at the expense of the others. 


The Enterprise crew shows sympathy for Gem.  They not only recognize the situation facing her, but also care for her in seeking her release from the Vian experiments and their own escape.  They do not take upon themselves her emotions, but remain detached and objective.


Gem exhibits empathy with the Enterprise crew.  Through touch she takes upon herself their physical and emotional distress.  At the point when Spock determines he will sacrifice himself in the next experiment, she transfers his love for his companions to herself as if it were her own and smiles with understanding.  At the point when McCoy returns from an experiment and is near death, she takes upon herself his physical injuries to heal him.


The Vians show compassion for Gem.  When confronted with their own hypocrisy and emotional destitution, they recognize the pain they are inflicting and immediately end the experiments and determine to save her planet.

Although Dr. Burton ranks these reactions based on the intensity of emotional engagement, his intent is to show that one can lead to another, particularly as individuals grow and mature.  He does not pre-suppose that one is better or worse than another, rather that each can be wholly appropriate depending on the situation and one’s own experience and insight. 


From the standpoint of depth psychology, neither sympathy nor empathy indicate the level of one’s love for another.  Rather, they reflect how one prefers to emotionally relate to another in communication and interaction regardless of the emotion involved.  Individuals can sympathize or empathize with another in both sorrow and joy.  They link, as one would expect, to the cognitive functions of Feeling, one being introverted and the other extraverted.


Sympathy then is to see the emotion in another and understand it based on one’s own experience and perspective.  This understanding allows one to react to the emotion from a place of responsibility and to say “I’m sorry for your pain”.  Since the judgement comes from the perspective of oneself, sympathy is equivalent to Introverted Feeling (Fi).


In contrast, empathy is to take upon oneself the emotion exhibited by another to gain understanding.  It is found in the sentiment of “I feel your pain”, literally.  Since judgement comes from the perspective of the other individual, it is correctly Extraverted Feeling (Fe).


Thus, individuals with Fi in their Ego are more naturally sympathetic, while those with Fe in their Ego are more empathetic.  Both Fi and Fe drive understanding and provide a foundation for successful relationships. Sympathy (Fi) will see anxiety and depression in another and seek to understand those feelings based on their personal experience without becoming anxious and depressed.  Empathy (Fe) will see anxiety and depression in another and quickly become anxious and depressed itself. 


Sympathy observes while empathy internalizes.  Sympathy is concern for others while empathy is sharing emotion with another.  Sympathy maintains personal boundaries while empathy has difficulty saying “no”.  Sympathy maintains inner calm while empathy can become overwhelmed.  Both provide a path to understanding and genuine compassion with neither being inherently superior or desirable than the other.


Fortunately, we all have Fi and Fe in our cognition and the capacity for both sympathy and empathy, ensuring full awareness of the emotional standing of another.   Ultimately, the Enterprise crew, Gem, and even the Vians, all developed and showed sympathy and empathy at different points during the episode.  Similarly, our responsibility is to develop both qualities in ourselves and find the proper balance between them.  In doing so, we mature and learn compassion.  We grow rewarding personal relationships and learn to genuinely care for our fellow man.




Jay Ackley

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