Empathy and sympathy are two words that are often used interchangeably in everyday speech. That said, are they really the same thing, and should we be using empathy and sympathy interchangeably?
If you’d like to know more about empathy vs. sympathy, you are in the right place. Let’s take a minute to look into the differences, some examples, and most of all, which one may be better to use in everyday life.
What Is Sympathy?
To better understand the empathy vs. sympathy debate, it does well to understand the different definitions of each word.
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, sympathy is simply a sincere concern towards someone who is going through something difficult or painful (14).
For example, if a friend tells you that they are going through a breakup or they have lost someone or something important to them and you feel pity or sorrow, that is sympathy. Essentially, you are sad for them.
Something tells us you often forget to put all the everyday hustle and bustle on hold and simply concentrate on yourself. It’s time to straighten out your priorities! Take a moment to heal, process your emotions, ground yourself, release all the pent-up tension and recharge with the BetterMe: Meditation & Sleep app before getting back into the race of life!
What Is Empathy?
Empathy goes beyond sympathy. With sympathy, you simply feel bad or sad for a person without putting yourself in their shoes. It’s a feeling expressed by someone looking at something from the outside.
On the other hand, empathy involves understanding the feelings that the other person is going through and seeing things from their point of view. A person who is empathetic understands or vicariously experiences another person’s feelings, perceptions and thoughts. They are able to see things not from their own view but also from someone else’s’ (1).
While there are several kinds of empathy, the two primary types that people experience are (2)
This is the ability to understand how someone thinks or feels.
For example – A friend has been giving their all at work in the hopes of being chosen for a new project or qualify for a promotion. Unfortunately, despite all their hard work, they are not chosen. Cognitive empathy helps us understand why the friend would be feeling bad, hurt and disappointed about this.
This is the ability to feel the emotions that the other person is going through. I.e. A friend’s, partner’s, or family member’s emotions can impact your emotions too.
Take the example above. With cognitive empathy, you are able to understand your friends feelings. However, with emotional empathy, your friend’s feelings, be they of anger, frustration or sadness will affect yours too.
As you listen to them, you might notice that you begin to mirror them too. If they are crying, you end up feeling sad. If they are frustrated, you might get angry at the unfairness or the situation, etc.
The ability to empathize with others could be attributed to the presence of mirror neurons. Found in different areas of the brain, this distinctive class of neurons are released when a person makes a movement and sees another person making the same movement.
The mirror neuron system in empathy is said to activate when we see someone going through something that we’ve been through before. These neurons tend to simulate the same thoughts, emotions, and sensations that someone else is experiencing in ourselves – automatically making us share in the experience (11).
To put it simply, the difference in the definition of empathy vs. sympathy is that in the latter, you simply feel and express pity towards someone and their situation, while in the former, you understand and feel the emotions a person is going through and showcase compassionate behavior.
What Is An Example of Sympathy?
We have all expressed this emotion more than once in our lives. Some common examples of sympathy include
- Reassuring a friend or coworker after something bad happened – e.g., I’m sorry your partner broke up with you, or I’m sorry the boss yelled at you.
- Offering condolences such as sending flowers and a card to the bereaved
- Feeling pity towards the homeless and buying food and a drink for a homeless person or giving them some money to do so
- Feeling sorry for someone and telling them you are sorry when something bad happens to them – This could be for something as small as hurting their toe to something as life-altering as losing a loved one
When you are sympathetic to someone, you often do not fully understand their perspectives or emotions, but you acknowledge their suffering/hardship and do something to try and reassure them. In some cases, sympathy is said to help the observer (not necessarily the person going through the situation) feel better (13).
What Are 5 Examples of Empathy?
While sympathy is often selfish and self-preserving, empathy is not. Psychology Today describes this emotion as one’s ability to recognize and share in the emotions of either another person, a fictional character, or a sentient being and offer compassionate behavior that comes naturally (3).
Through empathy, you are able to see a given situation from someone else’s perspective and simultaneously share in the emotions felt due to the situation at hand (4). This could be anything from happiness and excitement to sadness, frustration and even anguish.
The opposite of empathy is usually disinterest, callousness, harshness or coldheartedness.
To understand how empathy works, you must remember that this cognitive response comes from ‘putting yourself in someone else’s shoes’. Some examples of empathic responses can include
Offering to get lunch for an overwhelmed coworker who cannot leave their desk to get lunch
While offering to take over some of their workload would be best, it could be that you work in a different department and cannot do their work for them. Instead of just feeling sorry for them that they have too much work and can’t go out for lunch, offer to buy them their meal or snack so that they can eat comfortably as they work.
Being there for a friend who is crying because she lost her husband:
“I’m truly sorry to learn about the loss of your husband. You must miss him deeply. I want you to know that I’m here to support you during this difficult time.”
Validating your friend’s feelings who is angry about a situation
If someone is upset or angry, you can understand their emotions and acknowledge their feelings by saying, “I can understand why you would feel that way,” or “Your feelings are completely valid.”Statements such as ‘I’m sorry to hear that you are having trouble, ‘I’m happy to help!’, ‘I can hear that this is important for you,’ ‘I’m sorry you’ve had to deal with this,’ etc. are signs of empathy.
Actively listening without judgment
Sometimes, a friend may come to you hurt over something or someone that you explicitly told them to avoid. Instead of jumping at the opportunity to say ‘I told you so,’ choose to reserve judgment and listen to them rant. Offer a shoulder to cry on if they need it. You can even go further and find ways to shift their mood from their sadness by doing fun things like friend dates. It is also important to pay attention and ‘listen’ to non-verbal cues such as their body language and tone of voice.
What Is The Golden Rule Of Empathy?
The golden rule of empathy has always been to treat others how you’d like to be treated. This rule is one of empathy and helps us treat others with respect, kindness, and fairness (5).
However, the golden rule has been challenged, with some people choosing to drop it in favor of what can be called the platinum rule. This rule states that instead of treating others how we’d like to be treated, we should treat them how they’d like to be treated.
Challengers of the golden rule claim that this rule assumes that all people are the same and we all think and feel the same way (12). This is wrong because we all have different ethnicities, genders, and races and have different personalities, traits, hobbies, desires, experiences, etc. (9).
Under the new golden rule (or platinum rule), you are required to pay closer attention to those around you. Listen to them and learn what they are like, what they need, and stop with the assumptions. This is said to help you be better at showing empathy.
With stress being a constant presence in our lives, taking time to process emotions, decompress and get into the right frame of mind is absolutely crucial. With BetterMe: Meditation & Sleep app your mental health is in good hands! Start using it now!
What Is Better: Sympathy or Empathy?
From the empathy vs. sympathy definitions, we see that having empathy is much better than simply being sympathetic. Not only is sympathy usually self-serving, but research has also shown that it is often unwanted.
One study done via an interview on 53 cancer patients revealed the following differences between empathy and sympathy (13)
|Defining Characteristics||Unhelpful, lacks understanding, based on ego and self-preserving||Acknowledges suffering, based on genuine emotion and understanding, affective response|
|Response Type||A visceral reaction to a distressing situation||Objection and affective response to a distressing situation|
|Emotions of the person offering a response||Emotional dissonance (aka discrepancy between required and felt emotions)||Emotional resonance and contagion (aka able to connect with and influence the emotions of others)|
|Motivations to response offered||Pity, ego or obligation||Circumstantial depending on the /affective state of observer/duty/relatedness to patient/deservedness of patient|
|Intended outcome of response by responder||Self-preservation||Objective and affective understanding of sufferer|
|Outcomes reported by patients in the study to the response||Demoralized Patronized Overwhelmed Compounded suffering||Heard Understood Validated|
Using the above empathy vs. sympathy examples of how people feel, it’s clear to see that empathy is by far better than simple sympathy.
What Are The Main 3 Differences Between Sympathy And Empathy
The 4 main things you need to understand to better differentiate between these two are (15)
Sympathy is based on ego, while empathy comes from the heart. Empathy involves the capacity to recognize and comprehend another individual’s circumstances and emotions, while sympathy pertains to experiencing sorrow and pity in response to someone else’s adversity.
Empathy involves viewing a situation from the other person’s perspective, while sympathy involves looking at it from our own perspective.
The level of understanding
Sympathy represents a more superficial level of understanding, while empathy demands a deeper and more profound comprehension of another person’s feelings and experiences.
The level of judgment passed on
Sympathy typically entails a surface-level grasp of someone’s situation, making it prone to judgment, while empathy enables individuals to delve into another person’s thoughts and emotions, reducing the likelihood of passing judgment.
Compassion vs Empathy: What Is The Difference?
As previously described, empathy is the choice to not only acknowledge someone’s feelings but the attempt to understand what they are going through. Compassion literally means “to suffer together” and often involves an empathic response and altruistic behavior. And is defined as the emotional response when perceiving suffering and involves an authentic desire to help (13).
What Is Empathy vs Sympathy In A Relationship?
As said before, sympathy is ‘me’ oriented while empathy is ‘you’ oriented. To practice empathy in your relationships, be it romantic, platonic, parental etc. look at it from the other person’s perspective and understand the other person’s struggles, and find ways to help them out.
Better yet, help them in ways that they like. Try to avoid sympathy or pity towards any relationships that you want to foster and grow.
Can A Person Lack Empathy?
Yes, a person can lack empathy. Such people tend to have a hard time understanding what other people are feeling. They are often extremely critical of others, judgmental, impatient, cannot forgive easily, have trouble maintaining relationships, consider others to be ‘too sensitive’, self-centered, and will shift the blame for anything bad that has happened to them.
A lack of empathy can have many causes, including genetics, low emotional intelligence (EI), their up-brining and environment, and mental health disorders such as antisocial personality disorder, borderline personality disorder (BPD), narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), autism, etc (8, 6).
Is Empathy A Skill?
Yes, it is.
As we said before, empathy is both a skill and a choice. Some people feel more empathy than others, and if you feel that you aren’t empathetic enough, you can always work to learn and improve. However, we should warn that while being empathetic is good, it has its downside.
Empathy burnout is an issue often faced by those who are deeply empathetic (7). This can result in feeling overwhelmed, emotionally drained, low energy levels, isolation from others, and less capable of providing effective support and care to others. Some empathy burnout prevention strategies include
- Practice self-compassion – At the end of the day, you are human and cannot fix everything, no matter how much you want to. Do not beat yourself up for being unable to help
- Set boundaries with yourself – Do not let your emotions run the show
- Check in with yourself – Sure other people are important, but no one should come before your health. If you start feeling overwhelmed, take a break and practice positive coping strategies such as gardening, painting, yoga etc. Fill your cup before filling others.
- Try meditation – Meditation benefits and techniques are a good way to get rid of stress and unwanted thoughts. If you have never meditated before try mindfulness for beginners to ease you into the practice
- If you’re experiencing burnout, consider reaching out to a therapist for professional assistance to guide you through this challenging time.
What Are The Principles Of Empathy?
Some things you can do to better this skill include (10)
- Always be present – i.e pay attention to what the other person is saying
- Show that you are listening – This could be through simple gestures like nodding, giving appropriate reactions where needed, touching their hands, etc.
- Be respectful of the person’s situation. Do not be sarcastic and if the situation/conversation brings out negative emotions in you, e.g. anger, ask to take a break to calm down before continuing
- Engage in the conversation – This goes back to point number 2. Aside from showing that you are listening, ask appropriate questions or clarification for things that you may not have understood.
- Validate emotions – It’s not all the time that someone will come to you and you’ll immediately agree with them or understand what they are going through. Despite this, do not reject them or their feelings. Instead acknowledge the fact that they have every right to feel as they do
The Bottom Line
In the empathy vs sympathy debate, the former will always come first. Not only does it do more for the other person, but it is also a great way to develop deep connections with those around you. It can also teach you emotional regulation which is important in dealing with stressful situations.
This article is intended for general informational purposes only and does not address individual circumstances. It is not a substitute for professional advice or help and should not be relied on to make decisions of any kind. Any action you take upon the information presented in this article is strictly at your own risk and responsibility!
- APA Dictionary of Psychology (n.d., dictionary.apa.org)
- Cognitive Empathy vs. Emotional Empathy (2023, verywellmind.com)
- Empathy (n.d., psychologytoday.com)
- Empathy and Altruism: Are They Selfish? (2020, psychologytoday.com)
- Empowering Humanity with Kindness and Empathy: The Golden Rule Unveiled (n.d., alpanajha.medium.com)
- Genome-wide analyses of self-reported empathy: correlations with autism, schizophrenia, and anorexia nervosa (2018, nature.com)
- How to Avoid Empathy Burnout (2019, psychologytoday.com)
- Is It Possible to Lack Empathy? (2021, psychcentral.com)
- It’s Time to Stop Following “The Golden Rule” (2022, hbr.org)
- Learn Empathy in Just 5 Steps (2018, psychologytoday.com)
- Mirror Neurons and the Neuroscience of Empathy (2023, positivepsychology.com)
- Overcoming the Golden Rule: Sympathy and Empathy (1979, researchgate.net)
- Sympathy, empathy, and compassion: A grounded theory study of palliative care patients’ understandings, experiences, and preferences (2017, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- Sympathy (2023, merriam-webster.com)
- The Difference Between Empathy and Sympathy (n.d., psychmc.com)