Why the difference between empathy and sympathy matters

Don't confuse the 2 when speaking to those of us with multiple sclerosis

Benjamin Hofmeister avatar

by Benjamin Hofmeister |

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In case there was any confusion, “Chairborne” is not an advice column. Well, not the kind of advice that comes from raw wisdom, anyway. Most of my lessons are closer to cautionary tales than anything else. The only reason I can suggest avoiding any mistake is because I’ve already made it and did not care for the consequences.

For example, I feel authorized to say that you shouldn’t ignore multiple sclerosis (MS) symptoms because I did, which probably delayed my diagnosis. I recommend seeking support from the MS community without delay because I didn’t, and that cost me several years of frustrated confusion. I can also speak with some authority on toxic positivity because I’ve offered that to other people.

The main example that comes to mind happened at a conference a few years before I was diagnosed. The event was for medical providers in military special operations, as I was, and at one point I met a fellow Green Beret medic who’d been badly injured in combat. He’d lost both legs to an explosion and was now ambulating with the aid of two state-of-the-art prosthetic limbs.

I was starting to experience some early symptoms of multiple sclerosis in my own legs and made a foolish comment. I said something along the lines of how well he seemed to be getting around on the prosthetic limbs, essentially making the common toxic statement “but you look so good!” I then made it worse by saying that I might be better off losing my own faulty limbs on my next deployment so I could get some legs like his.

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He handled it well and coolly informed me that while his titanium and carbon fiber legs were nice, he’d give almost anything to have his real ones back.

I often think of that encounter when I find myself replying in a similar way to similar comments. Through the benefit of hindsight, I think now that what made my statements toxic was trying to empathize with something when I couldn’t. I was unable to put myself in his situation, and when I tried anyway, that false empathy fell flat.

The potential problem with sharing empathy

I believe that many people seem to think sympathy is a negative thing and that empathy is the preferred alternative. I don’t necessarily mind sympathy; I just prefer that it not be offered out loud most of the time. Empathy, on the other hand, can be wonderful when it’s real, but awful and grating when it’s not.

To me, sympathy and empathy are different forms of understanding. Unless you have my exact condition, you can’t walk in my shoes, and that’s OK. These shoes suck, and I’m glad you’re not in them. I don’t want you to be able to fully understand and comprehend this situation through empathy.

I do want people to know what my shoes are and that there are different kinds, as well as understand that there’s something really wrong with mine — which is sympathy. You can even be grateful that you aren’t wearing the same pair as me. You actually should be grateful; just don’t rub it in.

It might sound odd, but when someone says “I understand” in regards to my MS, sometimes my reply is “No, you don’t, not really — and that’s OK, because I don’t want you to.”

It’s another multiple sclerosis paradox, or could be. I’m grateful for the genuine empathy and support of my MS peers, but I wish none of us had this disease. Likewise, I’m grateful for genuine, nonpitying sympathy so long as it’s a recognition of my reality with MS. I just don’t have to like my need to be understood.

Note: Multiple Sclerosis News Today is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Multiple Sclerosis News Today or its parent company, BioNews, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to multiple sclerosis.


Carol Anselmo avatar

Carol Anselmo

I have PPMS as well. Thank you for sharing your story.

Benjamin Hofmeister avatar

Benjamin Hofmeister

Hi Carol! Thank you for reading it!

Lisa Lebel avatar

Lisa Lebel

I also have PPMS. I was diagnosed with it when I was 50 years old. I’m now pushing into my 7th year with this horrible disease. I am going to fight tooth and nail to keep the Progression from winning.

Benjamin Hofmeister avatar

Benjamin Hofmeister

Thanks Lisa! Keep up the fight!

anna avatar


Ben, I really like reading your column, I am a 46 year old with PPMS, diagnosed a few months ago after many years of symptoms. I think I am also a kind of person who may serve as a warning to younger generations of how not to take care of your health. It may sound strange but I finally feel I can take care of myself without being perceived by others as egoistic or too self-absorbed. I know it's sad. I also feel I need some help from other people with MS. May I ask you which MS communities you have contact with? I live in Poland but as you can see I can speak English, without using Google Translate;)

Benjamin Hofmeister avatar

Benjamin Hofmeister

Thanks Anna! It took a long time foe me to stop thinking self care was selfish. I still struggle with it sometimes. That's definitely a lesson to pass to others with MS. You are your own best advocate and best caregiver.

As far as support groups, I participate in the MS forums here at MS News Today


And another smaller forum that really fits my personality and attitude. (It’s not for everyone)


Your English is great, by the way. I already spoke some German and Spanish, but the Army decided that I should learn Russian and now everything is mixed up in my head.

Skaidrite Roper avatar

Skaidrite Roper

I also have PPMS and appreciate reading your column.

Benjamin Hofmeister avatar

Benjamin Hofmeister

Thank you so much for reading and leaving a comment!


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