Empathy and sympathy or often used as if they are interchangeable. In reality, they mean very different things. While some might read the slight differences in the definitions as just semantics, there are important distinctions between the two words. More importantly, these two words elicit different emotions and different responses. The person providing empathy or sympathy will feel a difference and it is likely the person receiving empathy or sympathy will feel a difference as well. So, what are the actual distinctions between these two words?
To have empathy is to actually understand what someone is feeling on an emotional level. Empathy can come from personal experience because you have gone through something similar. It also can come from the ability to put yourself in a person’s shoes. By doing so, you may find yourself understanding what they feel on an emotional level and that impacts you deeply. In some instances, empathy can be felt so deeply that you may almost be able to feel that person’s pain. Empathy allows you to understand someone’s perspective, remain non-judgmental, recognize someone’s emotions, and then acknowledge that person’s emotions to them. Social worker and researcher on shame and vulnerability Brené Brown mentions empathy being a way people connect with one another. At times, empathy involves stepping into a painful experience or a dark place with another person. Brown describes how empathy means allowing yourself to be vulnerable because it can involve tapping into your own emotions and even your own pain. While empathy may feel heavy at times, it is a way to create connection and for people to feel safe and heard by someone else.
Similar to empathy, sympathy involves acknowledging someone’s emotions, thoughts, and experiences. It also includes providing comfort which is also similar to empathy. However, unlike empathy, sympathy does this more from a distance. Sympathy recognizes and acknowledges emotions but does not necessarily feel those emotions like someone does when they are empathizing. Sympathy can be warm and heartfelt, but it often does not elicit the kind of deep reach for connection that empathy can provide. Someone experiencing sympathy might feel validated, but they might not necessarily feel as understood. Sympathy does not usually involve stepping into a person’s painful experience with them. That is why Brown describes sympathy is a process that can potentially breed disconnection. It can sometimes send the message, “Hey, I see your struggling and that really stinks, but I don’t want to get too close.” Even if that is not the intention, it can be how the person receives it. Sympathy is not a necessarily a bad thing. Again, a heartfelt, sympathetic remark can be well-received. However, when propped up next to empathy, it can seem less effective overall.
Both empathy and sympathy can valuable in terms of letting someone know you see them and you see their pain. When someone is suffering, they want to feel seen and heard. They do not want to feel alone in their pain. Empathy goes deeper than sympathy and allows you to communicate that you see and feel for someone who is hurting. It can potentially create a lifeline to someone who feels alone in way that sympathy might not.