Empathy vs. Sympathy: Best Self-Care Practices for Coaches

Your Empathic Quotient

For as long as I can remember I have valued helping others. Always the first to console the kid being bullied on the playground or to assist my parents or siblings when they needed it, I grew up believing that everybody felt other people’s emotions as keenly as I did. It wasn’t until I matured into a co-dependent and needy adult – sickly, fearful of others’ anger and prone to taking things personally – that I sought to change my life so that I could genuinely be of service to others.

Many of us drawn to the coaching profession have the inborn need and desire to help others, and indeed, coaching is not possible without that desire. We begin with the best intentions, whether it’s to make a difference in a professional industry such as business, health or finance, or to work with our family, friends and community members in their everyday lives.

Some coaches navigate successfully for years, inspiring others and drawing strength, energy and considerable wealth from their work. They are the superstars of the coaching world whose names we utter with awe and wonder. Yet what about the rest of us? Are we living happy, healthy, creatively engaged and abundant lives?

I know from my own experience, as well as the spiritual work I’ve done assisting other coaches, that a more common theme is burnout, depression, lack-luster earnings, and mysterious illnesses, followed by long recovery periods where we have trouble getting off the couch. At one point or another, many coaches I know have spent a considerable amount of time questioning their career choice. Some have left coaching altogether. This is avoidable suffering that robs our profession of many well meaning and creative people who have a great capacity for empathy and who sincerely want to help others. I believe this burnout stems from a simple misunderstanding of empathy and sympathy and the need to recognize what I will call our “empathic quotient.”

Empathy and Sympathy

empathy (ˈempəTHē), noun, the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.

sympathy (ˈsim-pə-thē), noun, 1. an affinity, association, or relationship between persons or things wherein whatever affects one similarly affects the other. 2. a mutual or parallel susceptibility or a condition brought about by it.

While many people identify as empathic, there is a subset of people, far fewer than the general population, who identify as empaths, also known as highly sensitive persons (HSPs) or “clairsentients.” In short, an empath is “a person who can experience the thoughts, emotions, energy and direct experiences of others.” (Dave Markowitz, Self Care for the Self-Aware, 2013)

There are many articles and tests available on the Web to help you find out if you are a true empath.

Some of the signs include a high degree of reliance on intuition or “gut” feeling; being often overwhelmed by the emotions of others; being the person everyone wants to confide in; needing to recharge after being in crowds; feelings of being ungrounded that are alleviated by spending time in nature or with pets; unexplained mood swings; suffering from mysterious and hard to diagnose illnesses; and even picking up the traits, tics or physical pain of others.

Needless to say, the creative and healing potential of empaths is off the charts. However if you are a practicing coach who lands high on the empathic spectrum, it’s imperative to take precautions against indulging in sympathy, the process of taking on or experiencing the suffering of the person to whom you are relating. In the coaching relationship, listening compassionately while avoiding taking responsibility for your clients’ feelings will prevent sympathy and its accompanying stress and burnout.

Self-Care for Coaches

While it may not come naturally to a true empath, putting yourself first is the best practice. Try incorporating some of the following simple suggestions:

  • Develop strong self-care habits, such as eating a healthy diet, getting plenty of sleep, exercising daily, and maintaining proper hygiene.
  • Moderate your consumption of alcohol, caffeine, or any substance that numbs your feelings.
  • Schedule regular downtime, including time off during the day, days off during the week and regular vacations.
  • Channel your creativity into right brain activities that help reduce stress.
  • Limit your daily intake of news on the Internet, TV and radio, etc.
  • Set healthy boundaries by learning to say no to others without explanation or justification.

Using one’s empathic gifts intelligently can greatly enhance the coaching relationship for both the coach and the client. Watching for signs of sympathy pains is the best insurance against co-dependence and professional burnout.


Carrie Ure is a Buddhist teacher, coach and spiritual director living in Portland, Oregon. She is an empath who helps creative entrepreneurs around the country to learn to empower themselves through setting healthy boundaries and to find spirit and meaning in their everyday lives.