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Understanding Apathy, Sympathy, Codependency & Empathy

“I see dead people.” This is perhaps one of the most famous lines from the 1999 mystery thriller, The Sixth Sense.  As I remember the story, the main character, Bruce Willis, goes through the movie believing he also sees dead people like the little boy he meets. However, by the end of the movie, you realize through the whole movie… he was dead!  He not knowingly was being helped by those who have passed on and, specifically, by one little boy who was not dead. The only living person who could see or communicate with him was the little boy who could “see dead people.”

This is similar for therapists who are trying to help their clients with codependency and addiction issues when we [as therapists] are not always aware of our own issues.  Therapists are trying desperately to help others when, in fact, they also need help.

As a recovering addict, I have learned this to be true the hard way in my own life. Now, as a therapist in recovery, I can see my own issues. I see codependent people, addicted people, and offended people so much more clearly and can now help them more effectively.

In the counseling profession, I have noticed confusion in understanding the differences between the words apathy, sympathy, codependency and empathy.  It has taken me some time to understand this for myself and to communicate that understanding to my clients.

Think of a pit or a well that your spouse, family member, or friend has fallen into.  They are in the deep dark place and cannot get out without the help of someone else.  You are walking and realize what has happened to them.

Let’s look at four different examples.


If you are apathetic, you would be standing at the top of the well and shout out to your friend, “What happened to you? Oh, well, that’s too bad. I have to go now. I have more important things to do with my day. Good luck.” 


If you are sympathetic, you would be standing at the top of the well and say, “What happened to you?  I am so sorry to hear that and see you down there.  That must have really hurt. Are you okay? Do you need anything?  That must be really difficult.”


If you are codependent, you would be standing at the top of the well and say, “What happened to you?  I am so sorry to hear that.  That is horrible.  I feel your pain. I must have caused this.”

Then, you would jump into the well with them. Now, you experience the negative thoughts and feelings they are experiencing. Not only that, but you feel responsible for their negative thoughts, feelings and physical pain from the fall. You even believe you caused them to fall into the well. You become just as offended as they are with the well not being clearly marked as a hazard!

Codependency is one of the most common words in counseling and recovery. Perhaps, it is the most misused and misunderstood. It can be simply defined as a “relationship addiction.”

You may be addicted to being in relationship or the idea of being in love. I call it puppy love that lasts 3 weeks to 3 months and then on to the next. However, it can also be with a spouse for 30 years who takes care of you.  It can be with parents, siblings and friends.  There is a need to be validated by them as well as to be dependent upon them and the relationship. It is also a form of mirroring who you think the person wants you to be and not really being you.  Lying and enabling behaviors are also a form of codependency.


In our final example, if you are empathetic, you would be standing at the top of the well and ask, What happened?  That sounds terrible.”

You leave and come back with a ladder. Lower the ladder into the well and go into the well with them. You listen to them, love them and provide what they need for their physical pain. You understand, as you too have fallen into a well before and have had a similar experience. You wish them well and let them know you will be back. You then leave the ladder for them. If they choose, they can use the ladder to climb out when they are ready.

In The Power of Vulnerability by Brene Brown, I appreciate how she defines empathy as “knowing your darkness well enough to be able to sit in the darkness of others.”  That is a great definition of empathy.

Apathy, sympathy, codependency and empathy are four very different words and concepts that can, hopefully, now be more easily understood.







Cory Schortzman, Executive Director

Cory Schortzman, Executive Director

Cory Schortzman is an author, speaker, teacher and licensed mental health professional. Since 2008, he has served as the Executive Director of Transformed Hearts Counseling Center in Colorado Springs, CO. He is the founder of SARA, the Sexual Addiction Recovery Association. Cory is passionate about helping couples and individuals overcome sex addiction. He is also passionate about bringing awareness to the public and supporting the elimination of sex and human trafficking. Cory has been married since 1998 to his beautiful wife, Kerry, and lives in Colorado with their four daughters. He and Kerry have been seen on the CBS Early Show, Inside Edition, and ABC Good Morning America, Fox 21 News, and TLC/Discovery discussing the harm of sex addiction and the joys of recovery. He has also been heard on numerous radio programs.

Cory’s books include: Out of the Darkness, Into the Light the Workbook, Into the Light the Steps, Ashes to Beauty the Steps, 301 Dating Ideas, 301 Conversational Ideas, 301 Ways to Say I Love You, 301 Ways to Love Your Children & 301 Recovery Tools & Tips.

Kerry’s books include: Ashes to Beauty the Book and Ashes to Beauty the Workbook

Co-authored books include: 101 Blogs to Transform your Life, Volume I and Offended Deceived Addicted







By | 2017-03-16T15:36:23+00:00 March 2nd, 2017|All Blogs, All Cory's Blogs, Communication|0 Comments

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