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What is the Difference Between Sympathy and Empathy?

Tricia Christensen
Updated May 16, 2024
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Sympathy and empathy are separate terms with some very important distinctions. Sympathy and empathy are both acts of feeling, but with sympathy you feel for the person; you’re sorry for them or pity them, but you don’t specifically understand what they’re feeling. Sometimes we’re left with little choice but to feel sympathetic because we really can’t understand the plight or predicament of someone else. It takes imagination, work, or possibly a similar experience to get to empathy.

Empathy can best be described as feeling with the person. Notice the distinction between for and with. To an extent you are placing yourself in that person’s place, have a good sense of what they feel, and understand their feelings to a degree. It may be impossible to be fully empathetic because each individual's reactions, thoughts and feelings to tragedy are going to be unique. Yet the idea of empathy implies a much more active process. Instead of feeling sorry for, you’re sorry with and have clothed yourself in the mantle of someone else’s emotional reactions.

It is fairly easy to feel sympathetic to someone else’s difficulties. We can definitely pity others who have lost a loved one, undergone significant trauma, or faced terribly difficult times. Those of us who watched the terror of the 9/11 attacks could certainly sympathize, but could we empathize? Actually, many of us could, though few of us can lay claim to really knowing what it might be like to either be in that attack or lose loved ones in it.

All Americans shared in the common ground that America had been attacked. People with no relationship to any person affected by the attack were stunned, shocked, saddened, in grief. We were not just sympathetic, and many arose to express empathy; if we did not know with surety, we could imagine how horribly difficult this was for the many directly affected. Even newspapers around the world felt with Americans, as the French newspaper Le Monde featured the headline “We are All Americans.”

This is perhaps the best example of how empathy differs from sympathy. Sympathy expressed to a person in grief suggests that person is alone in their grief. Empathy suggests you’re in it with them, you can imagine what it is to be in their shoes, and you are together with them in emotional turmoil and loss. Even the best people in the world may have a hard time expressing true empathy. A person who suffers a significant loss may have a hard time talking to his/her family because what is being expressed is condolences or pity, which may not be very helpful.

The need for true empathy gives rise to many groups of people who are encountering huge losses. There are numerous “therapy” groups for battered women, rape victims, parents who have lost children, people undergoing divorce, children with significant illnesses. In such groups, people often have the opportunity to talk to others experiencing things in a very direct way.

In these settings, those suffering don’t get the sympathy of others, but instead get the empathy of others. There is often an implied understanding since all people in such a group are similarly circumstanced. Frequently, what a person in grief really needs to hear is “I’ve done that too," "I totally get what you’re saying," or "I had the exact same thoughts," from someone else: all expressions of empathy. What they tend not to want to hear is “I’m so sorry for you,” an expression of sympathy that makes them feel alone and isolated in their grief.

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Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a WiseGeek contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.
Discussion Comments
By anon978964 — On Nov 22, 2014

Empathy is an expression of understanding. I can empathize with those who cannot hear very well and I'm on their side if they have complaints. It's awful. I know.

By anon303030 — On Nov 13, 2012

@anon292713: How is empathy selfish? Empathy is understanding another person's situation/feelings. Sympathy isn't selfish either, because feeling pity towards someone is a form of compassion.

By anon295315 — On Oct 05, 2012

Actually, the contrary is true. Sympathy is selfishly determining what an experience means/feels for another and then, expressing sorrow/pity based on your determination of their experience. Empathy is imagining what the other's experience might be like by identifying similar personal experiences without judging or pity. Sympathy is how I selfishly feel "for" your experience, while empathy is selflessly feeling "with" your experience.

By anon292713 — On Sep 21, 2012

Sympathy is selfless, empathy is selfish. To put yourself into the position of feeling what someone else is usurps their emotion as your own and is deceitful and arrogant.

By anon255250 — On Mar 16, 2012

We are all body, mind and spirit. There is a difference between spiritual empathy or sympathy versus intellectual empathy or sympathy.

For instance, a person experiences a loss and intellectually 'understands' the person's feelings of loss, or a person can not only cognitively understand the loss, but also experiences the feelings of the loss.

He or she is not actually feeling or pretending to experience the other person's feelings, but 'identifying' and feeling in kind. Understanding how someone feels is one thing, yet feeling and not running from it but embracing it with the other person is true empathy and sympathy.

One is passive, and one is active. Some people practice psychological empathy/sympathy without tapping their spirit. Others practice the opposite.

By anon243804 — On Jan 29, 2012

Two words are quite confusing but with this article, it clears my mind. Thanks for sharing your thoughts about sympathy message and empathy.

By anon243536 — On Jan 28, 2012

Have you ever said this? "I understand what you are telling me but I do not know what you are feeling."

Understanding is sympathy. Knowing is empathy.

By anon225354 — On Oct 26, 2011

Sorry, but you're not correct. Sympathy is deeper than empathy. Empathy is purely understanding another's situation. One shows empathy by purely placing themselves in the individual's shoes. Sympathy is sharing the grief, pity and distress with an individual experiencing a deep emotion. Sympathy is typically expressed. Empathy is the act of.

By anon218310 — On Sep 28, 2011

People who say that they are "empaths" are full of crap.

By anon173596 — On May 07, 2011

@anon51558: What is the role of empathy in listening and perspective taking? Why would "imagination, open-mindedness, and commitment" be useful skills for being an empathetic listener? as I believe that is what I have gathered from some of your posts! Thank you for your intelligence.

By emli — On Apr 27, 2011

Sympathy, in my world, is when you tell someone you have hardly any money and they say, 'Oh, that's too bad' and don't do anything else. Empathy, again where I come from, is when someone else puts themselves in your shoes, and not only shows sympathy, but also emphatically offers to give you some money.

By anon161556 — On Mar 20, 2011

My dear anon153715: Please get off your high horse. There is no such thing as true empathy in the sense you're describing. You might be a gifted reader of body language or facial cues, but you cannot "sense" somebody's spirit. If you can, consider this an open challenge.

Prove this remarkable gift of yours in a controlled laboratory setting, and you shall make a believer out of me. Also, there's a scientist in the UK willing to give away 1 million dollars to anyone who can prove the existence of psychic phenomenon, so that would be an excellent venue for this experiment, and you'd make a ton of money doing what you're apparently so very gifted at.

Do let me know how it turns out.

By anon153715 — On Feb 18, 2011

I've never read so much rubbish about true empathy. There are many people out there, including myself, who have an empathic ability or gift.

There are two types of empathy: common empathy, which is what this article is referring to and true empathy, which is actually feeling/reading/healing another person's emotions without a word being said to them.

There are many people out there who are true empaths without realizing it. Usually they're the people whose friends and family come to them and tell them all their problems, or complete strangers tell them their problems and open up to them, and the people leave on a high like on a drug. This is because the person who doesn't realize he or she is a true empath actually gives them positive energy whist soaking up the other person's negativity. They usually feel drained of energy and so tired without any reason why. They hate crowded places, and won't go to funerals.

On a spiritual level, they will also be clairsentient (meaning clear feeling). This means they will also be able to sense spirit, and they are natural healers.

If you think you feel just like another person, you are feeling empathy. If you just feel sorry for another person, you’re feeling sympathy. Sometimes people say they “emphasize” with someone when they mean they “sympathize” with him or her.

If you feel any emotion and don't know why (happy, sad, angry, frustrated, etc.) then you are more than likely a true empath.

In less than 12 months, I have given psychic readings and healing (emotional and distance) because I researched the experiences I've had and become more aware of what's actually happening.

By anon134500 — On Dec 14, 2010

What I find really sad is comments like if you show empathy you can become emotionally weak and get hurt yourself. I see the same comments here repeated.

In actual fact, you become the one who is weak because you are too afraid to feel the pain so you shut off and only give sympathy. People who often do this have been hurt early in their lives and therefore perpetuate that hurt onto others while at the same time being extremely sensitive themselves to the smallest of things.

After a while, they can only show sympathy, which usually comes off as insincere. That doesn't mean you become stronger or more of an adult, it just means you become colder and more and more emotionally detached. If it is the choice of an individual to deal with their own or others' pain in this way, they should expect nothing more than sympathy in return.

By anon127893 — On Nov 17, 2010

I see it differently from some posters.

Sympathy: What I am feeling as a result of something another person has experienced. The experience influences my response. I would have a judgment about the experience itself.

Empathy: What I reflect to another about their own emotions about their own experience. Here it is about their emotions not the actual experience. Here there is no connection to the experience on its own, but to the emotions of the other as they have the experience.

By anon118160 — On Oct 13, 2010

Empathy doesn't mean that you have to be hurt to be congruent to another person's feelings. If you take the problem on board as your own then you can get hurt, if you make the distinction that this is the other person's situation and feelings and can keep that boundary then you are less likely to feel hurt.

If someone is living in a bad neighbourhood, for example, and has problems with the noise and disturbance. You might say: That is awful (this is sympathy). You might also say: I can imagine that makes you feel unsafe to live in such a neighbourhood (this is more empathy). That is how I have come to understand it anyway, being able to put yourself in one's shoes.

By anon74524 — On Apr 02, 2010

Empathy is a psychologist’s term to mean the capacity to understand another’s feelings or experiences. Sympathy means the same, but has the additional meaning of feeling pity or compassion.

By anon68559 — On Mar 03, 2010

I had always understood the distinction quite differently. I understood that empathy meant to be able to understand someone else's point of view, but that sympathy goes beyond that because it also involves agreeing with someone else's point of view. In which case I would prefer someone to sympathise with me than to empathize.

By anon63111 — On Jan 30, 2010

When someone husband dies, she feels pain. At that time you have sympathy. You feel bad for her but not to the extent that you yourself have lost your husband.

If a person is hurt and he is having a pain of say 8/10, then a sympathy means you feel a pain of 2 to 3/10. But for his hurt if you feel as much as 8/10, then that becomes empathy.

It is not a very good thing to have too much empathy always as a person with too much empathy will become emotionally weak as he will get hurt every day seeing others hurt as much as he would actually have got hurt.

By anon51558 — On Nov 06, 2009

Star Trek fans may remember the character of Deanna Troi, who had empathic abilities. Essentially, she could sense and feel the emotions of other people, not so much reading their minds, but reading their emotions, and feeling them.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a WiseGeek contributor, Tricia...
Learn more
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