The Difference Between Empathy And Sympathy

The Difference Between Empathy And Sympathy

What’s the difference between empathy and sympathy? There is one, and it’s pretty important.

In brief, empathy is feeling with or alongside someone, while sympathy is feeling sorry for, which Brene Brown, a research  professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work, explores in the video above. Brown reduces the difference between empathy and sympathy as the difference between feeling with and feeling for, calling empathy a ‘sacred space’ and a ‘choice.’

Formal Dictionary Definitions


Oxford Dictionary defines sympathy as, ‘the feeling of being sorry for somebody; showing that you understand and care about somebody’s problems.’ 

Example of sympathy: ‘They had great sympathy for the flood victims’

But the second definition Oxford offers sounds strangely like what we’ve called empathy, explaining sympathy as, ‘Understanding between people; common feeling.’

Example of sympathy: ‘The special sympathy between the two boys was obvious to all’


So what about empathy? According to Oxford Dictionary, the difference between empathy and sympathy is that the latter involves a degree of judgment or evaluation–that the sympathizer assumes they know what another person might feel, and then extends that emotional experience to pity, for example.

‘Empathy means ‘the ability to understand and share the feelings of another’ (as in both authors have the skill to make you feel empathy with their heroines), whereas sympathy means ‘feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else’s misfortune’ (as in they had great sympathy for the flood victims)

While the difference feels narrow, it is crucial: empathy focuses on a mutual and shared (albeit potentially asynchronous) emotional experience, whereas sympathy moves more swiftly from feeling with to feeling for.

Four Qualities Of Empathy 

1. Perspective-taking
2. Staying out of judgment
3. Recognizing emotion in other people, and then communicating that
4. Feeling with

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