Empathy vs Sympathy: What’s the difference?

Amber Murphy

We all have heard or used the words empathy and sympathy at some point. And while some of us use the terms interchangeably, there’s a distinct difference when comparing empathy vs sympathy. We all wondered how it feels to “empathize” or “sympathize” with someone’s feelings. How do these words differ from each other? And how can our actions in empathizing or sympathizing create different reactions in how someone perceives the tone of the conversation? In this article, we’ll example the difference between empathy and sympathy and when the correct times are to use each. Let’s dive in to look a little bit more about empathy and sympathy.

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The Origin Of Empathy and Sympathy

Both empathy and sympathy derive from a Greek word, and its usage is to describe how you feel about the person’s emotion and how you would react to it. In the word sympathy, “Sym” means “together” and “pathos” refers to feelings or emotions. So, putting it together, sympathy roughly translates to be together with our feelings. On the other hand, the word empathy derives from the Greek word “empatheia,” which means physical affection and passion, and “pathos” means the same thing as mentioned above. So empathy is about being affectionate and passionate in our feelings.

empathy vs sympathy

Empathy vs. Sympathy: What’s The Difference?

Sympathy and empathy sound like similar words, but they couldn’t be more different from each other. They are often confused when people use the terms and define them. These words are also not synonymous with one another and are not interchangeable.

What is Empathy?

Empathy is understanding another person’s feelings because you’ve been through the same experience, and you know how it feels.

For example, you might’ve experienced similar trauma as another person, such as a car accident. As a result, you know how hard it is to deal with a brain injury and the fear of getting back into a car after an accident has taken place. So when you meet someone who’s also been in a car accident, and they tell you about how hard it is to concentrate or how scary it is to drive a car after a serious accident. You can provide a lot of empathy through shared experiences.

You can define empathy as putting yourself in the other person’s shoes. It has a deeper meaning and conveys a lot of emotion because you know how it feels and what it’s like to be in someone else’s situation. We rarely see “empathy cards,” and it sounds a little bit awkward because the meaning of empathy is more profound than the physical thing, and it can be felt more wholeheartedly than it seems.

What is Sympathy?

Sympathy is acknowledging the feeling of the person because you want to support and comfort them.

Most people offer sympathy when someone they know loses a loved one to illness. For instance, if you attend a viewing for a friend who lost their dad, but you have never lost either of your parents, you can only offer sympathy, not empathy. That person will go through the stages of grief as they deal with a death of a parent, and it’ll be unlike something you’ve ever experienced.

Sympathy is typically used to show pity, sorrow, and feel sorry for what the person feels. That’s why we often see “sympathy cards” because we want to show support physically. We may feel bad for someone in pain, but we don’t feel that much, or we can’t relate to them because we have never been in their position. You know they’re sad, or you know how bad it is, but there is a limit to how you can feel for them.

Which is Better: Empathy vs Sympathy?

Both empathy and sympathy are good responses to feelings or emotions. They convey a positive reinforcement with a heartfelt response, especially when people are struggling. It assures us of care and support in both physical and emotional aspects.

It’s a good feeling to know that somebody cares for you, especially if you’re going through many things, including your specific struggles in mental health, life events, or trauma. It’s not something we force or require; it’s an automatic response that somebody empathizes or sympathizes with what you feel.

what is empathy

When to Use Empathy Vs. Sympathy

Now that we know the meaning and the physical connection between those two words. Let’s take a look at how we properly use them.

Both empathy and sympathy are good words to express your physical or emotional connection to the person’s feelings. When you express sympathy, you know that a person is sad, but you feel the same way about what the person feels when it comes to empathy.

A person can receive both empathy and sympathy, but these feelings don’t go together. You can indeed feel one of them and not changing to another. Using those words in a sentence makes them identifiable and gives the actual response to the feeling.

Here are a few cases where you’d use empathy in a sentence or show empathy to another person.

The father has empathy for his son, who was bullied in class today.
The woman had a deep empathy for dogs and their owners, as she also owned a dog.
I definitely know how hard it is to go through a divorce.
I must have hurt your feelings when I made that rude comment.
I understand how you feel because I, too, was diagnosed with cancer.
I understand how it feels to feel like an outcast.
We can overcome this obstacle together.
I hear what you’re saying when you say, “I’m at the end of my rope.”
I felt terrible to know about all of this.
I’ve gone through all this, too, and I’m sorry that this event is causing so much pain.
We are on the same page on how to handle this problem.
I would have been disappointed too.

Here are a few cases where you’d use sympathy in a sentence or show sympathy to another person.

Show some sympathy for the victims.
He expressed sympathy and condolences to the bereaved family.
I’m sorry for your loss.
It’s sad to hear about this.
I’m here for you.
I wish you my deepest sympathy during this difficult time.
Wishing you well as my heart goes out to you.
Please accept my deepest condolences.
I share in your sadness.
You and your family are in my prayers.
I have no idea, but I’m sorry.
Please accept my sympathy.
You’ll get over it soon.
I’m wishing you peace and comfort.
I don’t know what to say; I just want you to know I’m here for you.

what is sympathy

Empathy vs Sympathy: Which is better to use?

Both empathy and sympathy express good emotional connections. One is not really better than the other; it’s just that sympathy sets a limit of connection or affection while empathy digs deeper than that, maybe because of the closeness or the experience of being in the same situation as the person.

However, you can’t fake empathy when you can’t relate to the experience at all. So you don’t have to pretend to be empathetic when all you can be is sympathetic. There will be times in your life where you really don’t know how someone else feels or what to say to cheer someone up. All you can do is offer a listening ear, love, and kindness to help people through their rough patches.

The response for both emotions (empathy and sympathy) are automatic, but the usage in the sentence will depend on how much you want to express yourself in written words based on the level of what you feel.

Sympathy is not necessarily lacking in emotion; it’s just that the limit of what it feels like doesn’t correspond to how the person feels. It’s hard to pretend how deeply you feel in a situation when you currently don’t feel how it feels like “personally.” Some things are just hard to relate to. So when comparing empathy vs sympathy, they’re both equally important.

The Science Behind Empathy And Sympathy

Let’s use a little bit of science to examine empathy and sympathy a little bit deeper. Empathy is a cognitive response of a person who experienced certain emotions as their own. It’s the increase in the probability of helping others so that a person understands how it feels like to be in a situation. It builds morality, compassion, and willingness to help.

Empathy encompasses “The Golden Rule” as we want to do what is morally good. Do something good and feel better because what you did is right, benefiting the other person.

Experts in neuroscience propose that it is possible to experience empathy because when we see a person experiencing an emotion, we imagine or “simulate” the same in ourselves that we feel like having a firsthand experience of the same emotion. Our minds are powerful sources and can replicate the emotional state of others so we can better bond with people.

empathy vs sympathy

What Are The Three Types of Empathy?

The three types of empathy are cognitive empathy, emotional empathy, and compassionate empathy. Cognitive empathy is the ability to understand someone’s feelings and try to work out what they think. Emotional empathy is the ability to share or connect to another person’s feelings or emotions. Compassionate empathy is the emotions that are transformed into actions when a person is triggered to do something. Empathy is essential in all aspects of life; it allows us to practice compassion for others, even with strangers.

On the other hand, sympathy is the physical action in response to a willingness to help others. For example, we feel greater sympathy for a terminally ill person than a sick person with a slight cold. Both of them are sick, but there is a greater response to the person with the highest degree of pain of emotional struggle. That’s because we’ve all experienced the inconvenience of a cold and know that it’s not that big of a deal, only a minor inconvenience.

Sympathy is being affected by feelings, emotions, or negative responses but not necessarily as much depth as empathy. We feel sorry in a certain way, and as much as we are willing to help, we feel a certain limit because that is the emotional limit it can provide.

Empathy is about understanding a person’s feelings by imagining yourself in that situation or knowing the other person as if you experience it yourself. On the other hand, sympathy is the feeling of being emotionally moved by or responding to another person’s feelings.

When comparing empathy vs sympathy, they are good feelings of helping and caring for another person. Empathy and sympathy help people cope up with what they are dealing with. Being able to respond to a person based on how he or she feels, triggers an emotional connection.

It would be so sad to imagine a world where no one can understand anybody else’s feelings. That’s the critical significance of these two emotional states of empathy vs sympathy.

So, it is beneficial for us to understand both empathy and sympathy because we are here to understand and help one another as humans. The world will become a better place if we know how to build connections and be sensitive enough to what others would feel or at least imagine ourselves in their shoes to understand better how they would feel.

Conclusion

Both empathy vs sympathy are equally important when trying to have difficult conversations with people. When we can relate to another person because we’ve been through a similar experience, we should use empathy to help them better cope with their challenges. However, if we can’t relate to their situation, we should employ sympathy and offer a listening ear, compassion, and kindness to help them through.

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