The Differences Between Empathy and Sympathy

Empathy and sympathy are concepts that are closely related, but they don't mean exactly the same thing. Here, we'll show you how they differ and which of them is more useful when helping someone.
The Differences Between Empathy and Sympathy
Samuel Antonio Sánchez Amador

Written and verified by el biólogo Samuel Antonio Sánchez Amador.

Last update: 08 June, 2023

The terms empathy and sympathy are often used interchangeably to underline the positive traits of a person. In any case, it should be noted that they actually have different meanings and their applications in human culture are different. Both a sympathetic person and an empath will understand a loved one at a difficult time, but the underlying mechanisms differ.

Being empathetic, understanding, personable, and generous is something almost everyone looks for. We’re social animals and, as such, part of our well-being lies in the approval we receive from others and in our own self-perception derived from good actions. Keep reading, because here we’ll show you all the differences that you should know between empathy and sympathy.

What is empathy?

The Oxford Dictionary defines the word empathy as “the psychological identification with or vicarious experiencing of the emotions, thoughts, or attitudes of another”. In other words, it’s about the ability to understand or experience what another person is feeling from their own plane of reference. This is the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes.

Empathy requires understanding the emotional state of the other human being from another’s point of view. However, this doesn’t mean that what an empathic person understands makes sense in all cases to them. Let’s take an example:

A person who has suffered a traffic accident can be very afraid to ride in a car, to the point of making irrational decisions to avoid it. An empathic person understands the past and the emotions involved and the emotional situation of the other subject and acts according to their well-being. Even if you haven’t experienced the accident itself, you can still imagine how it feels.

It has been shown that empathy isn’t unique to human beings. Bonobos, dolphins, rodents, and many other animals have exhibited the ability to avoid the pain of others (although this doesn’t benefit them) if they have the opportunity. It’s postulated that this trait lays its foundations in caring communication, healthy attachment, and parental care.

You can’t empathize in the abstract sense or by distancing yourself from someone else’s situation. You have to try to feel what isn’t your own in order to be empathetic.

What is sympathy?

The differences between empathy and sympathy include the way these people help others
Unconsciously, nice people have a particular way of helping others that can sometimes be seen as selfish.

The professional portal Oxford Dictionary defines sympathy as “the act or state of feeling sorrow or compassion for another.” This complex process includes the perception, understanding, and reaction to the discomfort and needs being emitted by another life form. It seems rooted in noble conduct but requires some qualification.

For sympathy to occur, the actual or hypothetical scenario must have the following elements:

  1. Paying attention to the subject in question.
  2. The belief that the subject (or group of subjects) is in danger, requires help, or is unwell.
  3. A number of specific characteristics inherent in the situation.

The first point is the most important of all. A person must be centered (at least superficially) on the individual in distress to develop the feeling of empathy, as distractions impede the perception of the situation that’s developing. In the right environment, humans are capable of perceiving verbal and non-verbal clues that indicate a need for help.

Sympathy is also based on the impulse (genetic and social) to help the weakest people (children, the sick, and the elderly, for example). In other words, the level of vulnerability of the subject who requires help makes the difference between attention and sympathy. Let’s take a simple example in order to better understand:

A person may have a hard time running a marathon because they have a cold and sneeze a lot. This usually attracts attention and you’d be sure to ask if they0 want to continue with the activity. In any case, if the same situation happens and the subject who doesn’t run well has a very aggressive cancer, we’ll feel more sympathy than in the previous case.

The severity of the event marks the intensity of sympathy we feel for the individual in question.

What are the differences between empathy and sympathy?

Both terms seem indistinct, right? Although we often use them interchangeably, here are a few differences between empathy and sympathy that will leave no room for doubt. Don’t miss it!

1. Empathy implies experience and understanding, while sympathy only implies understanding

As we’ve said in previous lines, empathy requires experiencing (or imagining in one’s own flesh) the experience of the other. The distance from a sentimental point of view is minimal: The individual understands what their loved one is going through because they put themself in their shoes and are capable of perceiving emotions that are the same or similar to those experienced by the other.

On the other hand, sympathy can be conceived as feeling and worrying about someone (generally wishing for their well-being). Although this feeling seems empathetic by nature, it should be noted that an act of sympathy doesn’t require experience or putting yourself in the place of the other. A sympathetic person understands what happens to the relative (or so they think), but they don’t experience the same feelings as the other person.

As we’ll notice in later lines, portals of experts in psychology (especially Psychiatric Medical Care) give a quite negative connotation to the term sympathy. Anyway, for now, we’ll limit ourselves to making the following distinction:

  1. A person who exercises sympathy says “I know what you’re going through” to someone who’s having a difficult time.
  2. A person who exercises empathy says “I’m capable of feeling what you’re feeling” to someone who’s in a difficult moment.

One of the clearest differences between empathy and sympathy is that the former is seen from the inside and the latter from the outside.

2. Sympathy implies sorrow and empathy doesn’t

As we’ve emphasized when describing the term, sympathy implies feeling pity on the part of the individual in the situation. This implies an inherent feeling of superiority, no matter how hard it is to recognize it, as seeing another as vulnerable always implies that they’re in an unfavorable situation with regard to us.

Feeling sorry for a person in distress is never positive. This fosters the problem of the individual who experiences the discomfort, as repeating how bad off they are will only make them more aware of their difficult situation. Furthermore, it implies unreal condescension.

An empathic person doesn’t feel senseless pity for someone who’s having a hard time. However, they’re concerned with establishing an emotional bond with the subject in question, putting themselves in their shoes, experiencing (in full or to some extent) their discomfort, and providing active listening. On the other hand, sympathy tends to be frivolous and doesn’t really connect with the emotional plane of others.

  • The person exercising sympathy alone says “I understand you,” but rarely understands what the other is actually experiencing.
  • The person who exercises empathy says “I hear you” and gives active support to the other because they know how difficult it is to be in their situation.

3. Empathy requires active listening

The differences between empathy and sympathy include communication methods
When practicing empathy, it’s important that communication is fluid and assertive. For this, active listening is essential.

The term active listening refers to a unique technique of human communication. Simply put, in this process, the subject expresses their situation through words and gestures and the person who listens has their attention focused on them, participating actively if necessary.

Active listening is based on the following pillars:

  1. Comprehension: The ability to perceive the message that’s being emitted and form a clear mental idea with it.
  2. Retention: Memory is essential in the active listening process, as it’s important to extract meaning from the message behind the words. Remembering the moments and situations that the sender has gone through when putting their message in context helps a lot to empathize in a real way with them.
  3. Answer: Active attention requires answers, but not always in the form of solutions. The receiver can express an “I’m listening” or “keep going” to reinforce the idea that the sender is being listened to and limit themself to understanding.
  4. Quantification: The active listening practiced by a specific individual can be quantified using the Active Listening Observation Scale (ALOS).

Active listening allows the empathic subject to understand, retain, and respond to the problems that the issuer is describing. On the other hand, a person who exercises sympathy in isolation may blurt out an “I understand you” when in fact they’ve listened very little to the other person. They feel genuine pity for them, yet sometimes they don’t bother to fully understand the situation.

With all these ideas, we don’t want to imply that sympathy entails ignoring the issuer in all cases. In any case, it’s possible to be nice without understanding almost anything that’s being explained. Empathy always requires active listening, and this goes hand in hand with real understanding.

Another difference between empathy and sympathy lies in the presence or absence of active listening. The first always requires it, while the second doesn’t.

4. Sympathy often falls into the “at least” trap

This is one of the differences between empathy and sympathy that’s easier to discern from a practical point of view. Let’s take an example:

  1. An accident occurs in a public space and 2 people die. One of the survivors breaks his leg and, after leaving the doctor, shares his discomfort with 2 friends unrelated to the tragedy.
  2. The friend who exercises sympathy will tend to say the following: “I’m very sorry for you, but at least you didn’t die like the other two.” They’ll probably also choose to reduce the emotional load of the event even if it’s not their intention with a “don’t worry, you’re sure to heal soon.”
  3. The friend who exercises empathy will tend to say the following: “I understand that it had to have been a very traumatic experience”, without establishing their own judgments or comparing the situation with another. They’re also likely to offer support with an “if you need me for anything, I’m here for you.”

The “at least” is a red flag in all cases when we talk about emotional connection. This simple construction denotes that the person isn’t understanding the discomfort of their loved one and tries to console them by downplaying what they’re feeling.

At the same time, you also often fall into the “why” trap. If a person falls down the stairs and expresses their fear, it’s likely that someone who’s not empathetic will answer them with the following: “Why are you afraid, if now you’re more careful than ever?” Although this attitude is meant to be comforting, it only invalidates the sender’s legitimate sentiment.

Empathic people don’t need to lessen the emotional burden of the sender to feel that they’re helping.

5. Sometimes sympathy means suggesting unnecessary solutions

All human beings are the protagonists of our own stories, so we tend to believe that the way we choose to act is always the right one. Our species is somewhat narcissistic and self-centered, but these traits can be worked on over time, and we’re prone to downplaying them as we grow older.

Sometimes (and unintentionally), people with more sympathetic than empathetic attitudes may try to seek unsolicited solutions to other people’s problems. They don’t arise from bad intentions, but these constructions are of little use when interacting with a person in a state of emotional distress:

  • “I would do X instead of Y”.
  • “When I was in your situation, I did X”.
  • “I’m sorry for you, but if you do X, it’ll go faster.”

These phrases only indicate that sympathy is eminently selfish. In other words, the person on the outside is trying to get the other person to do what they consider correct, not what really suits them. Again, it’s not about bad intentions, but there’s simply a failure to put yourself in the other person’s shoes.

Empathy is based on “treating others as they want to be treated” and sympathy on “treating others as you would like to be treated.”

Differences between empathy and sympathy: Which is better?

After exposing these differences between empathy and sympathy, it’s easy to conclude that the former is much more useful than the latter in all cases. If you’ve reached that conclusion, that’s okay, as effectively being empathic encourages building emotional bridges with people who feel discomfort rather than just feeling sorry for them.

However, it should be noted that sympathy doesn’t come from bad intentions and that it can also be comforting at specific times. Both concepts emanate from the need for well-being, but empathy allows much healthier and more positive connections to be created in the long term.

Este texto se ofrece únicamente con propósitos informativos y no reemplaza la consulta con un profesional. Ante dudas, consulta a tu especialista.