Empathy Vs Sympathy – Connection for Yourself and Others

Empathy and sympathy seem like the same thing, but they are actually pretty different.  There’s feeling what others feel, then there’s feeling bad for someone in a bad situation.  It’s about whose shoes you’re standing in.

Empathy and sympathy are similar. Empathy is characterized by not only understanding pain and sadness, but knowing exactly what it feels like because you’ve been there. Sympathy is understanding something that someone else feels, but not feeling the same because you haven’t experienced it yourself.

Do you ever find yourself wondering how others are feeling?  Do you ever feel others’ pain and wonder what that means?

What Is Empathy?

Empathy is defined as understanding and sharing someone else’s feelings.  Something happens to someone else and because you have experienced the same thing or something similar, you have empathy for that person and their situation.  For example, I understand the pain you feel in the loss of your beloved dog as I have lost several wonderful dogs in my lifetime.  I feel your pain and will cry with you.

Two people reaching one another - Empathy Vs Sympathy - Gone Minimal
Two people reaching out to one another

What Is Sympathy?

Sympathy, on the other hand, is defined as feeling sorrow or pity for another’s misfortune.  You know it’s hard, it’s a sad situation, you can see it in their eyes and see it in their behavior.  But because you haven’t personally experienced the same thing or something similar, you feel sorry for them.  For example, I sympathize with the loss of your mother, as I have not lost my own mother but I can imagine how that feels and am so sorry.

What Is the Difference Between Empathy vs Sympathy?

It’s all about perspective.  When we talk about empathy, we truly understand and feel their pain because we are able to identify with it.  Most of the time it’s because it’s the type of experience we have lived through ourselves, so we feel the same or similar feelings as someone else. 

When it’s sympathy we’re talking about, we know it’s painful and difficult but from our perspective-we’re not in the same boat.  We can imagine what it would be like, but we haven’t experienced it personally and don’t feel it the same way as someone else.

Examples of Empathy vs Sympathy Scenarios

Empathy and sympathy probably still sound pretty similar up to this point, so it’s important to provide some examples to give you a better idea of these feelings. 

  • While I was in nursing school, I spent a semester in the labor and delivery department of a local hospital.  Learning about pregnancy and childbirth, I spent time with laboring mothers and coached them through painful contractions and cried with the dads when the babies were born.  I had never had a child or even been pregnant, so I sympathized with the pain and emotions they were experiencing during labor and childbirth.
  • My best friend’s mom was recently diagnosed with breast cancer and was preparing to begin chemotherapy.  I understood what she was feeling in regards to her mom’s diagnosis due to the fact that my own mother was diagnosed with ovarian cancer a few years ago and has been undergoing chemotherapy for almost two years.
  • My spouse recently lost a friend to brain cancer.  They worked together in the fire service and he had great respect for this man.  I sympathized with my spouse because I hadn’t experienced this type of loss.  Then two days ago I lost my childhood friend to a long illness, which led me to empathize for my spouse.

Hopefully these examples help describe the difference between empathy and sympathy.  Now does that lead you to ask-how do I test which one it is?  Read on to learn more.

Group of friends - Empathy Vs Sympathy - Gone Minimal
Group of friends

How to Test if Something Might Be Empathy or Sympathy

It can be challenging to decipher whether something is empathy or sympathy.  There’s several tried and true, evidence-based measurements, but there are some characteristics to consider:

  • When your friends are sad, are you sad as well?  Are you sad because they’re sad, or because you’ve experienced the same thing?
  • When someone gets hurt, do you feel their pain?  Or do you feel bad for them because you know that’s gotta hurt?
  • Do you celebrate others’ successes and feel happiness for them? 
  • Do you find yourself saying things like “I understand your feelings”, or “I feel your pain”?

These are just a few questions you can ask yourself to differentiate between empathy and sympathy.  Just keep in mind that they’re both good qualities to have-they make us compassionate, caring human beings.

Is it Better to be Empathetic or Sympathetic?

This depends on the situation.  When we are sympathetic towards others, we hear them and understand their feelings without experiencing the pain and sorrow firsthand per se.  Empathy puts us in the other person’s shoes, so we feel the pain and emotional burden while trying to help them find their way.

Both are good qualities to have and demonstrate our “humanness”, but sometimes empathy can make it difficult to be present to help.  Some people have such high levels of empathy that they are often overcome by the pain and sorrow being felt by others and find it too challenging or emotionally draining when they try and help.

Benefits of Being Empathetic

When you have higher levels of empathy, you find it easy to understand and even “catch” other peoples’ emotions.  Emotions can be contagious to some-and when you’re empathetic you’re more likely to be affected by this.  Want to become more empathetic? 

Try paying attention to facial expressions, find things you have in common in others, and practice active listening.  These can all help you better identify with others and grow your ability to empathize.

Here is a greatly insightful video which helps explain the difference between empathy and sympathy:

Benefits of Being Sympathetic

If you are sympathetic to others, you’re trusted by others and may even find it easier to assist others in their time of need.  Because you haven’t experienced things firsthand, you’re not as deeply affected by others’ emotions, yet you still demonstrate care and understanding.  Sympathy makes us human, helps us feel things, and shows we care for others.

Other benefits of being sympathetic may include:

  1. Improved relationships
  2. Better communication skills
  3. Less conflict and better understanding
  4. Emotional balance
  5. Personal development
  6. A deeper connection with your inner self
  7. Increased happiness

Examples of Valued Empathy from Real People

I asked 5 family and/or friends what top 3 examples of empathy they would appreciate receiving (in an appropriate situation). Here is what they shared and what I learned from the poll:

Situation For EmpathyTally of Family/Friends
Death of a family member/friend2
Financial difficulties4
Sick spouse2
Failed an exam3
Feeling overwhelmed4
Bad day5
Physical pain3

Examples of Valued Sympathy from Real People

I asked 5 family and/or friends what top 3 examples of sympathy they would appreciate receiving (in an appropriate situation). Here is what they shared and what I learned from the poll:

Situation For SympathyTally of Family/Friends
Loss of a loved one5
Loss of a pet5
Bad day4
Tragic event (ex. house fire, car crash, etc.)3
Disability (physical and mental)5
Financial trouble/bankruptcy3
Severe illness3

Other Resources:

Emotional pain is a human characteristic we have all been blessed with.  It grants us the ability to empathize with others when we have experienced the same or a similar pain, as well as sympathize when we care for others and identify with them and their loss. 

We all have varying capacities to empathize and sympathize based on our own lives and experiences.  Even when we haven’t experienced something, just having sympathy for others makes us compassionate and caring, as well as human.

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