What’s the Difference Between Sympathy and Empathy?

The word sympathy is a well-known value and concept, whereas empathy is a fairly unfamiliar one. Their distinct meanings and uses are important to understand.  September is Suicide Awareness and Prevention Month. Suicide prevention and awareness may be enhanced by understanding the value of empathy. 

How can we offer support to a friend who is going through some kind of physical or emotional setback? Whether it’s a health issue or a romantic relationship, how do we express our compassion and sympathy when someone is going through a tough time? Do we provide empathy or sympathy? 

What’s Sympathy?

Sympathy is a feeling of pity or sorrow for someone else’s misfortune. While sympathy may not be as well received as empathy, sorrowful sympathy may offer some warmth and support when someone else is in trouble. If you give sympathy by feeling sorry, you may make others feel alienated. Of course, you should be as genuine as possible when dealing with others. However, be sensitive to the needs, desires, and feelings of the person who is in pain. Even if they are silently present for them, they may often benefit. 

When someone says “poor you,” they express sympathy. This creates a feeling of pity for the person’s plight. When someone says “I can relate,” they express empathy. This makes a person feel listened to and validated. Sympathy focuses on the literal meaning of statements, while empathy is attentive to nonverbal cues. Identifying people’s true intentions is critical in maintaining a connection with them. In contrast, empathy takes into account your own and others’ feelings. Emotions are pushed aside and avoided until they lead to a painful explosion. 

What are the 3 types of Empathy?

At a high level, Empathy is the ability to feel and share another person’s feelings. It’s based on the “shared” experience of trying to understand what they are going through. In addition to understanding their feelings, you may recognize how you felt when your mother died of cancer. Although your friend has lost a loved one, you may be able to relate to them because you, too, suffered the same loss. Understanding how the other feels is possible if you’ve been there, so you can empathize with their sense of emptiness and utter loss. Although you may not have experienced anything similar to your friend’s situation, you can empathize with them by putting yourself in their shoes mentally or emotionally. 

Cognitive Empathy

Cognitive empathy, also known as ‘perspective-taking’, is a form of empathy that is distinct from what most people would define as empathy. It allows you to place yourself in another person’s position and see their point of view. It is helpful in situations such as business negotiations or management, where it allows you to see the situation from someone else’s perspective without necessarily feeling the same way. To be empathetic, you must put yourself in someone else’s position and feel for them, not just understand them rationally and logically, as it does not fit with the definition of empathy. 

Emotional Empathy

When you experience the same emotions as someone else, you have ‘caught’ their feelings. This phenomenon, which is known as ‘personal distress’ or ’emotional contagion,’ is a type of emotional empathy. ‘Empathy’ is usually used to refer to an emotional connection, but in this case it refers to an even deeper connection. While empathy is usually considered a positive quality, it can also have undesirable consequences.  

It’s undesirable to experience empathy, since being inundated with those feelings would prevent one from reacting appropriately. This idea is explored in our page on Understanding Others. Those who are overwhelmed should improve their self-regulation and self-control, so they may manage their own feelings. 

Compassionate Empathy

Compassionate empathy is the feeling of someone’s pain and taking action to help, which is what we normally think of as empathy. Like sympathy, compassion is about being concerned for someone, but it additionally urges you to take action to address the problem. It is the kind of empathy that is most appropriate in most scenarios.

How does Compassion fit in?

Compassion is an attitude, a way of thinking—a desire to care for others and humanity, no matter how distant. Compassion may reach further than one individual to masses of people who are experiencing a certain illness, condition, or struggle. Even though compassion is generally advantageous to us and other people, health care workers, nurses, and other service personnel may suffer from compassion fatigue when caring for others, as it can be exhausting. This can negatively impact their health. 

When to use Empathy and Sympathy

Having sympathy for someone does not always result in compassion. It is a connection that connects two people together and allows for healing, understanding, and compassion. When we increase our capability for empathy, we are able to hear other people’s viewpoints and spring into action more readily. 

According to experts, there are seven key distinctions between empathy and sympathy. It requires active listening to empathize. If you want to show sympathy, you must give unasked advice or be told what to do. Since most people just want to be heard, empathy is more effective. It is more effective since ‘I know how you feel’ is more effective than ‘I feel like you do.’ On the other hand, empathy means ‘I feel like you feel.’ If you have empathy, you’ll be more aware of the other individual’s feelings, not your own. You will understand from your own perspective why someone feels the way they do. Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes and understanding the reason why they feel the way they do is key to understanding and offering healthier alternatives. 

We can help you to be more empathetic in the Denver area

We’re here to help.  We invite you to call us at 720-551-4553 for a free 20-minute phone consultation with an anxiety specialist. You can schedule your appointment via phone, and read more on the Anxiety Page on our website.

Self Care Impact Counseling envisions a new age of counseling for adolescents, adults, couples & groups that makes a REAL difference with core values of GROWTH | BALANCE | COMPASSION | INNER HARMONY.