How To Have More Empathy & Sympathy. What Is The Difference?

Empathy and Sympathy. Two words, that many of us take to be synonymous.

Sure – they both mean being there when someone is in need right? Isn’t it a good trait to demonstrate sympathy when a friend is going through a tough time?

Well, you’d think so.

But when you actually stop to analyse the difference between sympathy and empathy you may change your mind.


Let’s start by looking at the straight definitions of these two similar, rhyming words.

  • Empathy: the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.
  • Sympathy: feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else’s misfortune.

To be honest, that doesn’t really help with distinguishing the two. Grammartist goes a little further:

When you understand and feel another’s feelings for yourself, you have empathy. It’s often spoken of as a character attribute that people have to varying degrees. For example, if hearing a tragic news story makes you feel almost as if the story concerns you personally, you have the ability to empathize.

When you sympathize with someone, you have compassion for that person, but you don’t necessarily feel her feelings.

What Does Sympathy Look Like?

As the definition suggests, sympathy is having compassion for a person, without feeling their feelings. What is wrong with that?

The best way to really analyse this is to look at sympathy in action.

Person A: I think Steve doesn’t love me anymore.
Person B: At least he still pays the bills.

Person A: I have had a miscarriage.
Person B: At least you know you can get pregnant.

Person A: I cannot stand my boss.
Person B: At least you have a job.

I am sure you can see a pattern emerging there. Person B could be speaking with gently, with love and compassion, but it still comes across as cold. There is no connection, no willingness to open up and really feel what the person is saying.

It is really little more than an attempt to silver line the individual’s moment of sadness.

Sympathy is also characterised by a suggestion or attempt to make everything better – which is very rarely what the individual in question needs in order to feel better.


What Does Empathy Look Like?

Empathy is very very different than sympathy. And it all comes down to vulnerability and connection.

When you are empathetic you really open your heart. It is certainly more hard work to be empathetic than sympathetic, because you have to allow yourself to become vulnerable.

To really hear a person’s hardships and troubles requires active listening, during which you acknowledge their pain and identify that same pain within yourself.

This wonderful video from Brene Brown illustrates the difference beautifully. It demonstrates the four steps within empathy. This is what you can do to be a more empathetic person.

1. Take the perspective of your troubled friend – or at least recognise their pain as their truth.
2. Do not pass any judgement. This can be difficult for many of us.
3. Recognise the emotion that they are experiencing.
4. Ccommunicate that back to them.

The point here is not to offer a solution. Rather thank them for reaching out to you and connect with that part of yourself that recognises the emotion that they are feeling at this time.

Why Should We Be Empathetic?

Empathy is a choice. Yes it takes a little effort, particularly when compared with sympathy. But nonetheless, it is something that we should all strive to be for the people who mean the most to us.

Being empathetic will strengthen your bond with the important people in your life. You will provide a valuable support to your spouse, children, family, friends and colleagues. You will in turn increase your own feeling of self worth. The ripple effect of this will spread to the wider community. Making people feel better will make an intangible difference that you cannot see immediately.

How Does Empathy Work In The Brain?

Scientists have attempted to study empathy. Max Planck confirmed the widely held belief that human beings do have a tendency to be egocentric. However, there is an alarm system that recognises a lack of empathy and buzzes to life to autocorrect when necessary.

This specific part of your brain is called the right supramarginal gyrus. When this brain region doesn’t function properly, or when we need to make quick decisions, one’s ability for empathy is dramatically reduced.

So there you have it, sympathy is very different than empathy.

What do you think about this? Are you an empathetic person?

We would love to hear from you!

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