Empathy vs. Sympathy: What’s the Difference?

Laura Hamilton's picture

Being a sensitive and compassionate person is a goal sought by many. Understanding others and connecting on an emotional level is truly a noble effort. When we talk of such kindness towards others, we often say it’s showing empathy or sympathy. Are they both one in the same or is there really a difference between the two?

Empathy

Many years ago President Bill Clinton coined a phrase “I feel your pain” while out on the campaign stump. Although we know all about politicians and promises, this phrase is a good example of empathy. When you feel another’s feelings as your own, you are displaying empathy. Even the dictionary origin of the word gives us a clue. Empathy comes from the Greek empatheia meaning passion or affection and pathos meaning feeling or emotion. Essentially you are sharing the same emotional state as someone else.

Empathy and sympathy are related but truly different. Empathy says “I feel with you,” while sympathy says “I feel for you.”

Empathy is about walking in someone else’s shoes. You can understand another person’s suffering because you’ve been there and done that. This is often why we seek out other people experiencing similar problems. It also explains the success of therapy groups. After all it’s much more comforting and healing to hear someone say, “I’ve felt the same way” or “I had those same thoughts” rather than “Gee, I feel sorry for you.” Empathy is about connection and truly relating with someone. And while it’s not always easy to empathize, it does help a great deal.

Sympathy

Sympathy is also an act of feeling, but not in the same vein as empathy. When watching news stories of starvation and severe poverty in other countries, we often feel sorry for these people and their plight. But how many of us can actually say we have experienced the same thing or walked in their shoes? Chances are very few of us could express that kind of feeling or empathy. Does that make us cold and heartless? Of course not. As sensitive beings we still care, but it is difficult to identify with these particular problems. In this case we are likely to express sympathy.

When it comes to sympathy you may not “get” what others are truly experiencing, but you feel for them. You may express concern or feel sorry for their difficulties, but you don’t identify with their emotions on a deep gut level as with empathy. Although you may not have that same connection, displaying sympathy still shows that you care.

Similarities and Differences

Both empathy and sympathy often come from a place of good intentions. We either share or understand feelings and experiences with another person (empathy) or we express awareness and compassion (sympathy). Both usually come from the heart and are aroused by care and concern for others.

When it comes to conveying these gestures, it is often easier to show sympathy rather than empathy. Consider for a moment the idea of sympathy cards. When someone loses a loved one, we don’t necessary feel the same loss, but we can still show that we are aware of his or her suffering. Therefore we give a sympathy card as acknowledgement.

Sometimes however, sympathy can backfire. Expressions of sympathy often include phrases like “Poor you” or “I feel sorry for you” which can come across as pity. This may not always sit well with the person experiencing the hardship. Sympathy can also come across as insincere at times, leaving the recipient feeling inferior and disempowered.

Empathy, while often harder to garner, helps to form a deeper bond with another. By trying to put yourself in another’s shoes, you show that you relate on a personal and emotional level. There is no risk of judgment or pity—only reassurance.

Empathy and sympathy are related but truly different. Empathy says “I feel with you,” while sympathy says “I feel for you.” Both are important when it comes to showing you care.