Empathy vs. Sympathy: What's the Difference?

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hazrakhatoon

09 June 2023

10 Mins

In a world that has been engulfed by a barrage of problems, empathy is the simplest solution, yet it’s seldom practiced. With the advent of technology and the constant inflow of information, we’ve become normalized to other people’s sufferings, which in turn has reduced our ability to truly empathize.

For instance, the coronavirus inflicted insurmountable problems on everyone, especially the poor and underprivileged. We’ve been reading news on the migrant crisis, the number of active cases, and the unemployment catastrophe that has left millions with a meager income. Ultimately, we’ve become numb to everything that’s going on and are facing an empathy deficit.

The importance of empathy goes beyond major global crises—it applies to our everyday interactions, relationships, and workplaces. But what sets sympathy vs empathy apart? Which approach should you embrace to cultivate stronger relationships in life?

Let’s delve into the contrasting nature of empathy vs sympathy and discover why one of them holds the power to forge deeper connections and foster profound understanding.

Empathy vs Sympathy: Key Characteristics

When it comes to connecting with others, you have to know the difference between empathy and sympathy. Empathy allows for a deeper connection by truly understanding and sharing someone else's emotions and experiences. On the other hand, sympathy involves acknowledging someone's feelings without fully immersing ourselves in their situation.

To make things clearer, let's take a closer look at empathy vs sympathy, along with some examples to help illustrate their differences. By understanding these key characteristics, you'll be better equipped to navigate various situations and choose the most appropriate response.

What is empathy?

Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings and experiences of another person. It goes beyond simply recognizing someone's emotions; it involves putting ourselves in their shoes and genuinely connecting with what they are going through. When we practice empathy, we try to imagine how the other person feels, and we respond with kindness, compassion, and support.

Empathy is like a superpower that allows us to create deep connections with others. It helps us build stronger relationships , foster understanding, and offer genuine support to those around us. By being empathetic, we can truly connect with people on an emotional level, validating their experiences and letting them know they are not alone.

To be empathetic, we need to listen actively to others, paying close attention to both their words and non-verbal cues. We strive to understand their perspective, even if we have not personally experienced what they are going through. Empathy requires us to be open-minded and non-judgmental, creating a safe space for others to express themselves without fear of being criticized or invalidated.

Practicing empathy benefits not only our loved ones but also ourselves. It helps us develop a greater sense of emotional intelligence, become more understanding and accepting, and strengthen our interpersonal skills. It allows us to forge deeper connections and build a more compassionate and inclusive world.

What is sympathy?

Sympathy is a natural human response to someone else's difficulties or hardships. It involves acknowledging and feeling sorry for another person's pain or suffering. When we feel sympathy, we recognize that someone is going through a tough time and express our concern or compassion towards them.

Unlike empathy, which involves stepping into someone else's shoes and sharing their feelings, sympathy is more about showing care and support from a distance. It's like saying, "I understand that you're going through a tough time, and I'm here for you."

When we offer sympathy, we may express our condolences, offer comforting words, or extend gestures of kindness to let the person know we care. It's an important way to show empathy and support, even if we haven't personally experienced what they're going through.

Sympathy can be expressed through acts of kindness, such as sending a thoughtful card, offering a listening ear, or providing practical assistance. It's about showing genuine concern and reaching out to offer comfort and support during challenging times.

While sympathy is a valuable and compassionate response, it's important to note that it may not create the same deep connection as empathy. It focuses more on acknowledging the person's pain than fully understanding it. However, it can still provide comfort and let someone know they are not alone in their struggles.

Empathy vs sympathy examples

Let's explore some examples to understand the difference between empathy and sympathy.

Imagine a situation at your workplace where a colleague has just been reprimanded and is feeling sad, nervous, and disappointed in themselves.

If you respond with sympathy, you might say, "I'm sorry that you're going through this." However, you may still hold some judgment towards their situation. You might even think, "Well, at least you still have your job!"

But if you respond with empathy, you will truly feel what they're feeling. You would experience their sadness, nervousness, and disappointment and genuinely care about their well-being. You would let them know that you're there for them, saying something like, "I'm really sorry. I'm glad you shared this with me. I'm here to support you."

With empathy, you resist the urge to try to solve their problem or make their feelings go away. Instead, you focus on connecting with them and showing understanding.

Another example could be: If a co-worker tells you they're having marriage problems, a sympathetic response might be, "That's unfortunate. Have you consulted a counselor?"

But with empathy, you would listen fully to what they have to say. If you have a close relationship with them, you could even ask if they want to talk about it further. You wouldn't feel the need to fix their issue; instead, you would offer them a moment of connection and support.

The Differences Between Empathy and Sympathy

Sympathy vs empathy both have the word "pathy" in them, which comes from the Greek word "pathos." Pathos can mean emotions or feelings, but it can also mean suffering.

So, both empathy vs sympathy are connected to emotions. But there is a significant difference between sympathy and empathy .

Which is better: sympathy or empathy?

Sympathy doesn't let you truly understand and connect with others. It only gives you a shallow understanding without seeing things from their point of view. But empathy is different. It allows you to imagine what it's like to be in someone else's situation. This helps you provide them with the support they truly need.

Moreover, when we talk about workplaces, empathy can help you connect with your colleagues and understand them better. This can lead to building a strong and successful team that works well together.

4 ways to practice empathy

Empathy is more than just a feeling. It involves taking action to show that you care about others. But how can we demonstrate empathy? How should we support our loved ones during difficult times?

There's no one-size-fits-all approach to showing empathy, just like there's no one way to have a relationship. However, there are simple behaviors that can create an empathetic space for others in any situation.

Here are some tips for showing empathy, as shared by Mental Health First Aid . These tips mainly revolve around how to actively listen to other people.

Listen without judgment

Empathy means actively listening and trying to understand what the other person is saying. When someone asks for help, they are vulnerable, so it's important to connect with them by acknowledging and understanding their emotions and thoughts.

Listen with intention

Active listening requires giving your full, undivided attention to the person. Face them, keep your hands still, and maintain eye contact. Avoid distractions from your phone, television, or other people.

Listen without giving advice

Instead of telling the person what to do or how to solve their problems, allow them to express themselves and reach their own conclusions. If they seek advice, encourage them to think about their own solutions first. This approach shows them that they have the ability to find their own way forward.

Listen with understanding

Even if you don't agree with or fully comprehend the other person's feelings, it's important to validate and accept what they're experiencing. By accepting their emotions and supporting them, you foster trust. Let them process their feelings in their own way, which becomes easier when you follow the previous suggestions.

What can seem like empathy but isn’t?

There are certain behaviors that may appear to be empathy on the surface, but in reality, they fall short of genuine empathy. Here are a few examples:

Pity

Pity is feeling a sense of sorrow or sadness for someone's misfortune. However, it often involves a sense of superiority or looking down upon the person, which can create a power imbalance and hinder true empathy.

Fixing or providing solutions

While it's natural to want to help others by offering advice or solutions, this can sometimes overshadow genuine empathy. Trying to immediately fix someone's problem without first understanding their emotions may come across as dismissive or invalidating.

Minimizing emotions

When someone opens up about their feelings, responding with statements like, "Don't worry, it's not a big deal" or "You'll get over it" can invalidate their emotions. It's important to acknowledge and validate the person's feelings rather than diminish them.

Projecting your own experiences

Empathy involves understanding the other person's perspective and emotions, rather than assuming you know what they're going through based on your own experiences. Avoid projecting your own feelings onto them and instead focus on listening and understanding their unique situation.

Empathy vs sympathy: know the difference

What is the difference between empathy and sympathy? Although the two words share the same etymological Greek root, pathos, which means feelings and suffering, they aren’t the same. Translated from the German word "einfühlung," empathy means the ability to step into someone else’s shoes and share their emotions and thoughts . It refers to the action of understanding and being sensitive to another person’s experiences and feelings.

There are three main kinds of empathy: affective, somatic, and cognitive empathy:

  • Affective empathy means the ability to share others’ emotions. A person with this sort of empathy usually has a visceral reaction to violence and macabre in horror shows.
  • On the other hand, cognitive empathy refers to the ability to understand someone’s emotions. A person who rationally understands another’s feelings without being emotionally swayed displays this kind of empathy.
  • Lastly, somatic empathy is described as responding to someone else’s pain by physically experiencing the same pain. On the other hand, sympathy refers to feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else’s misfortunes.

Sympathy is a more detached concept than empathy because it essentially involves acknowledging someone’s sadness and offering your pity or condolences. It can be described as a surface-level response that doesn't require fully immersing yourself in another person's experience. While sympathy shows a level of care and concern, it lacks the depth of understanding and connection that empathy provides.

How does empathy impact our day-to-day lives?

Now that we understand what is the difference between empathy and sympathy, let’s know how it impacts our daily lives. Although being sensitive to other people is often discussed, it’s seldom practiced for ourselves. How many times have you beaten yourself up over a missed deadline or a bad day and been overly judgmental? Chances are, quite often. In fact, studies prove that feeling guilty or being too harsh on yourself for a bad day can negatively impact your well-being in the long run. So, what’s the way out? Empathy goes a long way.

If you look at your shortcomings and address them as you would a friend, how different will the dialogue be? Being slightly more patient and understanding with yourself can help you improve your self-esteem, confidence, and happiness.

The idea isn’t to justify your mistakes by blaming them on external factors. Instead, it is to acknowledge what you did wrong, understand what factors led to it, forgive yourself, and keep the lessons in mind.

This is how empathy is starkly different from sympathy. Sympathy may tell you to feel sorry for yourself for messing up something and complain about why all this only happens to you. Not only is this unhelpful, but it also makes you feel helpless and out of control, thereby robbing you of your confidence and happiness.

How can Now&Me help you?

Want to understand the difference between sympathy and empathy with professional help?

Now&Me is an online platform that aims to foster empathy and provide support to individuals. It offers a space where people can share their experiences, thoughts, and emotions in a supportive community . For expert assistance, you can hop on a one-on-one consultation call with a therapist at Now&Me, which is 1/4th the cost of traditional therapy. Moreover, you can start with another option, which is to chat online with experts for free. Isn’t it amazing? So, just download the app and explore it now.

FAQs

The three types of empathy are cognitive empathy (understanding someone's perspective), emotional empathy (feeling someone's emotions), and compassionate empathy (taking action to help someone).

Empathy is generally considered better than sympathy because it involves truly understanding and connecting with someone's emotions, while sympathy is more about feeling sorry for them.

Empathy is about understanding and sharing someone's emotions, while sympathy is feeling compassion or pity for someone's situation. Compassion is the desire to help alleviate someone's suffering.

An example of empathy is feeling the sadness and frustration of a friend who lost their job, while sympathy would be acknowledging their loss and expressing condolences without fully experiencing their emotions.

A real example of empathy is a person who listens attentively, shows understanding, and offers support to a friend going through a difficult time, genuinely sharing their emotions.

A sympathetic person may offer condolences or express pity for someone's struggles without fully understanding or connecting with their emotions.

Sympathy can make you feel sorry for others, as it involves acknowledging their hardships and feeling compassion or pity for their situation.

Being a sympathetic person involves being compassionate and understanding towards others' difficulties, showing care and support for their well-being.

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