Last Updated on March 3, 2020
Empathy and sympathy are two words that sound similar and have often been used interchangeably. However, their meanings aren’t quite the same. The differences aren’t just in spelling but also in how they’re used in emotional circumstances. Empathy and sympathy can have extremely different impacts on relationships.
According to Dr. Brené Brown: “Empathy fuels connection, while sympathy drives disconnection.” She further elaborates that empathy is something that can bring people together and make them feel understood and included.
Sympathy, on the other hand, can inadvertently create an uneven relationship and power dynamic, which can lead to disconnection and even eventual isolation. This is not the intended outcome as sympathy, on its own, largely comes from a good place and is meant to make other people feel better.
Let’s take a look at these two terms independently so we can better understand how they differ from each other.
What Is Empathy?
Empathy, by definition, is an act of understanding others. It’s knowing and being sensitive to what people are thinking, feeling, and experiencing. This means that you don’t just feel bad for someone who’s in a difficult situation. With empathy, you can feel the individual’s pain as well. This helps you better understand what someone is going through.
Researchers have coined the term “mirror neurons”, which could potentially help explain our ability to empathize. These were discovered during an experiment with monkeys. They found that particular neurons fired when the monkeys put food in their mouth.
Remarkably, the same neurons also fired when the monkeys observed the researchers eating. Essentially, the similar action elicited an equal response.
This can potentially explain how we can identify with other people’s situations. With empathy, you are able to mirror what someone feels. This is where the phrase “put yourself in someone else’s shoes” comes from or even the phrase “I feel your pain.” Often, people are able to empathize because they’ve gone through trauma in their own lives, one that’s similar to someone else’s.
Or they can adequately imagine the situation that a person is in. Because they can imagine it or have experienced it themselves, it helps them better understand and empathize with the grief of others.
Empathy works throughout the whole range of human emotions. While you might immediately think of empathy when a situation is sad, it’s the same for other emotions as well. Aside from worry and grief, you can empathize with a person who’s feeling intense joy, for instance.
What Is Sympathy?
Sympathy, on the other hand, refers to the capacity to have feelings of concern or care for another person’s situation. It seems similar to empathy if you just look at it from a surface level. However, the difference is in the emotional output of sympathy.
When you feel sympathetic towards someone, you feel bad when they’re down, but you don’t necessarily feel what they are feeling. When it comes to sympathy, it is more of a commiseration and understanding of someone else’s grief without necessarily feeling the same pain.
The emotional output of sympathy largely comes from a good place. However, in some instances, it makes people feel more dejected because they may feel that they’re being looked down upon. It can be easily misunderstood and confused for pity in times of tragedy and sorrow.
Moreover, this can sometimes make people feel like you are patronizing them. When misinterpretations happen, this may lead people to push each other away.
Empathy vs. Sympathy
Understanding the differences in empathy and sympathy gives you a more comprehensive guide on when and how to use the words. Now, we’ll take at how they impact people and relationships.
Both words have roots in the Greek pathos. This means suffering and feeling. The differences at the beginning of the words are quite telling. Empathy comes from empatheia: prefix en plus pathos, which means “in feeling.” On the other hand, sympathy comes from sympatheia with prefix syn and pathos. This means “coming together, feeling together.”
Sometimes it’s not easy to differentiate empathy and sympathy because both involve feeling with others. The main difference involves the level of emotional output involved. Empathy puts you in the position of the other person, while sympathy allows you to feel sad for them.
That’s usually why you send sympathies when you understand someone’s pain; you are not necessarily feeling the same pain, but you are aware that they are suffering.
This is why empathy tends to fuel connection more. Because when you empathize with a person, you aren’t just feeling bad for their situation. You can truly feel what they are feeling too.
Because of that, they feel more connected and more open to sharing. It’s because of this that empathy is at a deeper level emotionally than sympathy.
How to be More Empathetic
At times, it’s difficult to be empathetic. Being sympathetic tends to be easier for some people. But there are things you can do to be more empathetic. Often, it means opening yourself up and allowing yourself to feel your emotions. The more you can do this, the more you can understand the feelings of others.
To give you more insight, scholar Theresa Wiseman outlined four attributes of empathy that will help you to be more open and empathetic toward others:
See the world as others do.
In some cases, what prevents you from truly empathizing with another person is the fact that you have never been in a similar situation as them. To be more empathetic, you have to be willing to see the world through someone else’s eyes.
Avoid being judgmental.
If you want to be more empathetic, you have to be able to set aside feelings of judgment. Sometimes judging stems from people wanting to shield themselves from feeling certain emotions or seeing sad and tragic circumstances.
Emotions can indeed be messy. It’s essential to set aside the discomfort and allow yourself to be more open. This way, rather than shying away from it, you are instead able to recognize the experience of the other person.
Understand people’s feelings.
To empathize with someone else’s feelings, you have to be able to understand your own feelings as well. This is often the biggest roadblock as many people choose to not face their own emotions head-on.
If you are able to identify your emotions, this will make it easier for you to be more receptive to what others are feeling.
Communicate your understanding.
When you are empathizing with someone else, verbalizing your understanding helps them realize that you truly know how they feel. In this case, words have incredible power.
If you choose your words wisely, you can help them feel that they are not alone. For example, instead of saying “Well, at least you…,” you can say “I have been in your situation, and I know how hard it is…”
Practicing these attributes will help you to have more empathy and, in turn, deeper relationships with others.
Empathy Helps Bring People Together
In the end, empathy does indeed fuel connection. If more people could put themselves in each other’s shoes and understand how others feel, the more it can foster greater connections and more meaningful communities.