Empathy vs. Sympathy: The Big Distinction

Here is one distinction I make which I notice helps a lot of people. It makes it easier for them to take the best decisions in communication and in social interactions with others, and it assists them to improve their people skills. This distinction is between two similar sounding concepts.

Empathy: the ability to understand, perceive and feel another person’s feelings.

Sympathy: the tendency to help others in order to prevent or alleviate their suffering.

These are not exact, dictionary definitions and it seems there are no universally accepted definitions for empathy and sympathy in psychology. These are rather the way I operate with the two concepts, in order to emphasize a couple of key aspects. Here are these aspects:

1) Empathy is always good, sympathy is contextually good.

Understanding the feelings of other people means to access very precious information which you can use in multiple ways.

However, feeling the need to help others is something which from one case to another can be good or bad. Sometimes it can mean honor and building bridges, sometimes it can mean lying, being fake, sacrificing your own needs, not letting others learn on their own and other pointless people pleasing behaviors.

2) You can have one, without the other.

This is the most important part. You can have sympathy with only a vague understanding of the other person’s feelings. You can also understand exactly how bad a person feels and still be capable of not helping her.

You can be a highly empathic person and still have your freedom to act in they ways you think are best, whether they involve helping others or not. You can have empathy and have options at the same time.

Let’s say a friend of yours invites you to their birthday party. While you would like to go, in the very same day there is a conference in another town that you would like to go to even more than the birthday party.

Having empathy means that you understand this will make you friend feel hurt, maybe even a little angry. Having sympathy only as an option means that although you understand this, you can still say no to their invitation and go to the conference instead of the party, without feeling bad. This example is something that actually happened to me recently, and the conference was my choice.

Why is this distinction essential?

It’s essential because when it comes to people skills, many believe that the ability to be empathic and the tendency to have sympathy are the same thing: If you have empathy, you have sympathy. If you understand how badly a person feels then you can’t help but help them in some way, even if rationally you know it’s a poor decision.

As another implication, since many people believe empathy and sympathy can only go hand in hand, they also think that in order to not have sympathy, you have to sacrifice you empathy. You have to become ignorant and numb.

Also, they often believe that they automatically have a lot of empathy because they tend to help others all the time. All of these ideas… are incorrect.

When you have a good understanding of the fact that empathy and sympathy are related phenomena but they go in separate boxes, you can learn to have empathy without always having sympathy, and you take your people skills to the next level.

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  1. For some reason it was when Stephen Covey explained “empathic listening” as listening until the other person “feels” heard, that empathy clicked for me. It’s not do you intellectually get it, it’s can you actually *feel* it.
    .-= J.D. Meier´s last blog ..More Spring Cleanup on Sources of Insight – Simplifying the Experience =-.

    • Hey J.D. I think there is a cognitive part to empathy, an an emotional one as well. So when you have empathy, you can know how a person feels, and you can also feel it for yourself.

  2. Hi Eduard.

    Cool discussion of these two. Whenever I think of empathy, I think of one of my friends who is always thinking of others and their concerns. He really shows it on many occasions. I am not as empathetic as he is. I always appreciate that quality of his, because it is like someone always has your back.

    I like that you described that sympathy is mainly good in the context of a situation. It does not have the all-encompassing value that empathy has, because there are some situations where it is used manipulatively, or where sympathy doesn’t help the other person as we might hope. A lot of places of communication on the internet have people that put down any signs of showing sympathy, but it has places where it fits just fine. It is just easier for folks to act like a strong rock than a sensitive individual in those forums.
    .-= Armen Shirvanian´s last blog ..The Hard Parts Are The Important Ones =-.

  3. Hi Eduard,
    You make a very important distinction. When we “Feel bad” for someone we are secretly putting them down. It is implying that this person is powerless and can’t help themselves. By being empathetic we can support them in their own growth and development and empower them.
    .-= rob white´s last blog ..May is Meditation Month =-.

    • Hey Rob. I agree. Helping others is often a way to put them down and give ourselves status. It’s done for ego validation and it’s not very constructive. Hmm… maybe I’ll write a post about this soon. You gave me an idea.

  4. Hmm….thanks for making the distinction clear in your post. Empathy is a necessary quality especially for those in the helping profession. Empathy certainly helps when you are assisting others with emotional healing.
    .-= Evelyn Lim´s last blog ..Timeline Therapy Story: A Journey Into Wisdom =-.

    • Evelyn, I think empathy is important for a lot of things. It’s a life skill. But it is especially important for helping others heal emotionally.

  5. Eddy –

    As a coach, this is a key distinction for me. Coaches are typically very empathetic (i know i am). However, as my coaching mentor told me “sympathy means jumping into the pit with the other person”. When we sympathize we get emotionally invested in the problem and often lose track of objectively assessing a situation and helping people avoid it happening again. Once this distinction is understood, it takes practice to learn to empathize without sympathizing, however as a helper it is the most powerful place to be. Good post, my friend.

    .-= Phil – Less Ordinary Living´s last blog ..How to avoid getting fired by George Clooney =-.

    • Hey Phil! I think this distinction is particularly important in coaching. As a coach, you wanna be able to understand your client, without getting trapped in the same head space.

  6. twila hankins says:

    working in Mental Health required Empathy to really help Sympathy would drown me with the other person ,especially when working with people that suffered from Borderline Personality disorder certainly to validate the persons pain was important then to move on with empathy was the challenge .It has taught me much .But so much more that I need to learn esp. as I deal with those that I love. I am not there yet! and I am 70. I love life and practicing it is part of what makes it interesting.Thanks for your wonderful article!

  7. I don’t necessarily agree that when we feel sympathy for someone that “We’re putting them down” as a previous commenter posted. A current example… I feel a lot of sympathy for the families and loved ones of the US soldiers (including 22 Navy Seals) who were killed Saturday (08/08/2011). Is that putting them down. Of course not. It’s a natural human reaction to a very real tragedy suffered by those soldiers, their loved ones and the country. If I knew any of them personally, I’d feel empathetic towards their families. But I can’t reach that stage without a personal connection. Sympathy and prayer is the best i can do.

  8. i dont realy agree that when you help someone you are putting them dowm because when you go to the olding days where people got an easy living is helping each other even god himself said we should kickly aid those in need to save them from death.let me give you a simple example;when you were raise in a poor family as child with a beautiful talent and you dont have any one to support you what your end will be? and again god did not creat us to be all rich,one will get and one will not these are the circumstances we have to work with and avoid negative thinking.i remember a certain woment came to me years ago to help her for her child diying from a serious condition and luckly i was able to saved her from crying alot.

  9. Your example of the friend’s birthday party and the conference drives the “empathy/sympathy” point home very well. Being able to make the distinction does indeed take your people skills to another level. And unfortunately, it is a level that a lot of people never reach (unless they come across your post as I did). 🙂

  10. In your interesting article you state that “…you can learn to have empathy without always having sympathy..”. I want to know can you learn to have sympathy without always having empathy. I think I struggle with having too much empathy. I cannot make such a decision as the birthday example you gave without feeling awful and greatly conflicted. It can exhaust me feeling what everyone else feels. I have struggled with this all my life, and I am 59 years old. Of course, I have to make hard decisions at times and have learned not to help when it doesn’t really help, for the most part.

  11. From personal experiences i find those who are unwilling to give and show sympathy when it is needed and give empathy only instead come across as distant and cold
    people that only use empathy with no sympathy seem like they are not prepared to feel what others feel, but to only observe it from a distant perspective. over use of empathy when sympathy is needed leads to a lack of real feelings, only calculated observations sounds more like thinking than FEELING to me
    what is wrong in sharing someones pain, ?
    what is wrong with showing your sorrow for someones loss ?

  12. just my thoughts here..but

    Empathy is when you have experienced the pain yourself and can empathize with someone who has recently went through the same pain.

    Sympathy is when you have not experienced the pain yourself, but you feel you can sympathize in that you feel bad for the person and feel you can imagine the pain.

    both are for consolation, perhaps grief.

  13. Jake Roberts says:

    I have given some thought to the distinction of these two, and together with what I have read in the article and the responses, this is what I believe to be correct.

    The definition of empathy at the beginning of the article is satisfactory. However, I disagree with the given definition of sympathy. Rather, I believe what was said at the beginning of the article is a possible consequence of sympathy.

    To support my claim, consider the fact that it is possible to sympathize with someone who feels joyful. For example, my mother can sympathize with someone who is joyful from just being married because my mother was also joyful as a newly wed. Rather, I believe this to be a more acceptable definition:

    Sympathy- The understanding towards how an individual feels as a consequence of understanding the perspective of that individual.

    If this is taken to be a valid definition, the distinction between empathy and sympathy lies with how each causes an individual to understand another’s feelings. In the case of empathy, one gains the understanding of the feelings of another by observing the state of that other person. In the case of sympathy, one gains the understanding of the feelings of another by observing the situation of the individual. Hence, if someone is empathetic, they have empathy OF something, and if someone is sympathetic, they have sympathy TOWARDS something.

    For example, if one were to come across a little girl crying, any feelings of sadness would be an indication of empathy because such an understanding is realized not through understanding the situation, but by observing the state of the little girl. Alternatively, suppose one were to hear that a joyous individual had won 100 million dollars from the lottery. Any feelings of understanding of why such a person is joyous is an indication of sympathy because such an understanding is obtained not by observing the individuals state, but rather observing the individuals situation.

    It should be noted that, as a consequence, empathizing is more closely relating to the feelings of the person than does sympathizing. Actually, the process of sympathizing is some what artificial because such an understanding is in respect to one’s own feelings towards a scenario and not necessarily the feelings of another individual in the scenario.

    These are the conclusions I have come to, but I am open to other ideas, so please share your thoughts.

  14. Mark Samson says:

    Clarifying My Statement And Correcting Typos.

    I Have A Good Understanding Of The Meaning Of Both Words,Sympathy and Empathy, At Least I Think So. But, what I was thinking about is it better to be a sympathetic person or an empathetic person. This Is What I Came Up With In My Own Mind:
    I don’t want somone’s sympathy(pity) without their empathy(understanding), but will accept someone’s empathy without their sympathy.

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