The Crucial Difference Between Empathy & Sympathy

Sympathy and empathy are words we often use interchangeably. Does this matter? I think so. Sympathy and empathy were concepts I first learnt about in school, in English Literature. Since then it hasn’t had that much relevance in my life until the past few years. Because here’s the thing. If we’re going to be supportive people, if we’re going to be there for each other as human beings, then we all need to learn what an empathetic response is.

The Definitions

According to Google, sympathy is the “feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else’s misfortune”. Or according to the Cambridge English Dictionary, “(an expression of) understand and care for some else’s suffering”.

In comparison, according to Google, empathy is “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another” and according to the Cambridge English Dictionary, “the ability to share someone else’s feelings or experiences by imagining what it would be like to be in that person’s situation”

Why Sympathy vs. Empathy?

Why are sympathy and empathy often used to mean the same thing if they are different. Because they are different. Whilst they are both concepts we use to describe a reaction we may have to other peoples’ pain. A sympathetic and empathetic response can be world’s apart. And can elicit very different reactions.

Many people assert that sympathy can be patronizing and, as per Google’s definition, is associated with pity. If there’s ever an emotion to make someone recoil, it is pity. But it’s not all bad. I believe sympathy does come from a good place. The place within us that wants to reach out to another human being and provide comfort. But this sounds an awful lot like empathy. Perhaps, when we wish to provide sympathy we really mean empathy.

Photo by Markus Spiske from Pexels

Or do we? Sympathy comes from the Greek sumpatheia which is a combination of ‘sum’ meaning ‘with’ and ‘pathos’ meaning feeling. To be sympathetic means to give a response with feeling. But whose feelings are we talking about?

In comparison, empathy comes from the Greek empatheia which combines ’em’ meaning ‘in’ and ‘pathos’ meaning feeling. Therefore, to be empathetic means to give a response based on being within a feeling with someone else.

Why Empathy Over Sympathy?

So, what’s the difference between these concepts? I believe their original etymology tells us this. Being sympathetic is having a response based on emotions. Your response could be based on the emotions you think a person should feel, rather than what they actually feel. I may assume someone is stressed about a new project or holiday, because I would be. But they may actually be excited or relieved. When we act with sympathy we run the risk of misreading a situation based on how we think/feel meaning our reaction could alienate the person we’re trying to support.

Responding with empathy means trying to put ourselves in that person’s shoes – as much as that is humanly possible. I frame empathy as standing alongside someone, or being alongside someone. Empathy is about meeting someone where they are. We don’t second guess how they may be feeling. We wait for them to tell us, or even ask. This can make empathy harder. When I’m sympathetic I respond based on what I know. When I’m empathetic I have to put myself and how I feel aside. Easier said then done.

Why is Empathy so Important?

Hopefully, this is becoming clear. Empathy gives us a chance to connect with someone and support them where they are. Brene Brown, in her wonderful video sympathy vs. empathy, which inspired this post calls empathy ‘feeling with people’. The risk of empathy then is that I may make myself vulnerable. As Brown says, to be empathetic I may need to tap into a part of myself which knows that feeling. For example, if I’m talking to someone about a bereavement. To understand I may think about how it felt when I experienced a bereavement. I then need to see if my experience maps onto the feelings that the person in front of me is exhibiting or telling me.

Empathy comes with it’s own challenges and risks for our own mental health. Supporting each other is an incredible thing to do. But we need to check in with ourselves before we do so. Ask yourself, am I in the right place to manage or hear something difficult or upsetting today? How is my own mental health? Or even, if someone shares something heavy with me today, how will I look after myself or who will I talk to?

Empathy is an incredible gift. It helps people feel connected. It helps people feel less alone. So, as you move through life think, how can I be with someone in their hard times? How can I stand alongside them? Because when our response is empathetic it can make all the difference.

For more tips on how to listen to someone read here.

For more tips on how to support someone read here.

What are your thoughts on sympathy vs. empathy? Have you received or given an empathetic response? Did it work and why?

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4 thoughts on “The Crucial Difference Between Empathy & Sympathy

  1. This is an incredibly clear explanation of what the difference between these two words is. Thank you so much for taking the time to share it!

    – Laura //

  2. For the longest, I have been using these words in the wrong way. Thank you for the clarity it was much needed on my part, great articles.

    1. Agreed Michelle. Empathy and being sensitive to others can be exhausting. I think it’s because we often absorb and carry the feelings of others.

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