I recently watched this wonderful 3-minute video (below) by Brene Brown about empathy. Brene Brown, Ph.D. is a research professor, author and storyteller who specializes in the social science of "vulnerability." She has done some really fantastic work in that field, and a lot of that work has some subtle but powerful links with anxiety.
This particular video offers some insight into empathy and how it differs from sympathy. According to Dr. Brown, "empathy fuels connection; sympathy drives disconnection." As she describes, empathy is feeling WITH someone else. Empathy comes from a vulnerable place. It requires us to connect, not only with another person, but with the pieces of our own history and our own often painful experiences, and then share that emotion with our friends or loved ones. In contrast, sympathy is more cerebral and is all about putting a silver lining or a positive spin on someone's troubles. For instance, my mom passed away from cancer recently, and it has been a challenging experience for me. I've confided in family and friends. Some have been sympathetic: "Well at least you still have your dad" or "At least she's not suffering any more." True statements; yet not very comforting. But a few others have been empathetic: "I'm so sorry; it was really hard when I lost my parent" or "That must have been really tough, do you want to talk about it?" or "It's natural to be hurting and feeling a little lost". Much more comforting. When we confide our suffering in other people, we're generally not looking for someone to fix our problems or put a silver lining on our experience; we are looking for comfort, love, connection and maybe some validation. That is empathy.
If you want to learn more about empathy, take three minutes and watch Brene Brown's video below. Also, you might be interested in these two articles that talk about different types of empathy and about the connection between anxiety and empathy (spoiler alert: anxious folks are really empathetic; it's practically our super power).