|Sympathy vs. Empathy|
|By Anthony Gangi|
Recent discussions have taken place on multiple forums in regards to empathy making individuals vulnerable. Empathy is defined as the ability to share and understand the feelings of others. By this definition, being empathetic is considered objective because a true understanding of the feelings of others cannot be blinded by emotion. In the correctional setting, staff may confuse empathy with sympathy. Sympathy is defined as a mutual affinity towards another and, by definition, sympathy can lead to pity. By this standard, sympathy can be seen as more subjective and, therefore, may lead an individual down a path where they become emotionally blinded.
Being empathetic is by no means exposing vulnerability. On the contrary, empathy can be a powerful tool. It relates us to the situation, or individual, in an objective manner that helps aid in the choices that we make. You are able to relate to the experience at hand in a way that promotes understanding, but not pity. In essence, I understand how it is to be in your shoes and, therefore, there is no need for me to wear them. Inmates will do what they can to promote a relationship that centers on a proposed similarity between them and staff that creates a mutual affinity (sympathy). This tactic used by inmates is meant to blind us from seeing them as an inmate. This tactic exploits a chance by the inmate to remove the title of inmate and connect on a level that relates to the shared experience that they are trying to create with staff (father/son/etc). At this level, personal information that has been gathered by the inmate furthers their chances of success in regards to building a rapport that lies outside of the staff member's defined boundaries. The staff member, relating to the inmate's story, which has been manufactured and centered around their personal life of the staff member, may begin to feel the emotional tug that will eventually form sympathy. In essence, sympathy is built on the shared experience that has been manufactured in an attempt to emotionally blind the staff member. In this case, sympathy has been built through the personal experience of the staff member and now the inmate will exploit their connection to the staff by pushing forward their proposed shared experience that highlights a fictional bond.
The situation now becomes dangerous for the staff member because the title of inmate, as viewed by the staff member, has been removed and in its place becomes the connection needed for the inmate to move forward with their plan. At this point, the inmate has taken the staff member's story, their personal life, and built a scenario that persuades the staff member to stand outside their uniform and see the inmate in a manner that connects him or her to themselves on a personal level. The staff member may find themselves feeling sorry for the inmate because the false bond that has been built is created by using the vulnerability of the staff member. In essence, the staff member cannot help but see themselves in the inmate because the story the inmate has created is based on the life of the staff member. The staff member has now become blinded by emotion and may feel the need to help this inmate rise above their dilemma.
As for empathy, empathy is an understanding of the situation at hand, but remaining objective. Even if the inmate tries to use obtained personal information about staff, the staff member may be able to relate to the story, but it will not, in any manner, have an effect on how the staff member does their job. Empathy, in other words, provides staff with the ability to see how it is to be in the inmate's shoes without having to walk in them. By this standard, the staff member will not be blinded by the emotions that come with sharing a troubled journey. The staff member is able to separate their problems from their profession and, therefore, they have a sense of control that will not blind them emotionally to the inmate.
In some cases, arguments will pursue in regards to empathy and sympathy making staff vulnerable. From my perspective I have to seriously disagree. Sympathy is subjective. In our profession, sympathy can relate to the inability to separate yourself emotionally from the problems of another. Sympathy brings pity and blinds you from seeing the situation in a truly objective manner. Empathy, in essence, is objective. Empathy is the understanding of situation in a manner that is not blinded by emotion. Empathy helps us see how it is to walk in someone else’s shoes without the need to wear them. It creates the boundary that is needed to understand the situation, but still remain separate from it. In my eyes, empathy builds understanding in a manner that helps us adapt. Empathy is not, nor ever will be, an emotional connection forcing us blindly to the choices we will later regret. Empathy is a tool that builds rapports and maintains the level of professionalism needed to work in an environment in which new situations arise and our safety depends on how we react.
For over twelve years, Anthony Gangi has worked in the correctional setting dealing with both male and female offenders. He served on the custody level and has moved through the ranks from line officer to supervisor and has also spent time as an instructor. His background in psychology has helped him to become a leading expert in inmate manipulation.
Anthony is also the host of "Tier Talk", a radio program that looks at corrections from an international level. You can catch "Tier Talk" on Saturday nights at 6 pm Eastern Standard Time on Spreaker. For more information regarding the show or other publications by Anthony, you can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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