What is the Difference Between Empathy and Sympathy

When it comes to caring for others, it’s important to know the difference between empathy and sympathy.

Though they may seem similar, they actually involve very different responses. Here’s a look at the difference between empathy and sympathy, and how they can be used to care for others.

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 empathy and sympathy as the difference between feeling with and feeling for, calling empathy a ‘sacred space’ and a ‘choice.’

Empathy vs. Sympathy

Empathy and sympathy are two terms that are often used interchangeably, but they involve very different responses. Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. It’s the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and understand their perspective. Sympathy, on the other hand, is the ability to feel sorry for someone. It’s the ability to feel compassion for someone who is experiencing hardship.

Empathy is often seen as a more positive response than sympathy. This is because empathy involves understanding, while sympathy involves pity. When you understand someone, you can offer them support and care in a more helpful and meaningful way. When you pity someone, you may not actually be able to offer them anything of value.

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 Oxford’s second definition 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.

How to Use Empathy and Sympathy

Empathy and sympathy can both be used to care for others. Sympathy can be used to offer compassion and support to others, while empathy can be used to understand and relate to others. Here are some tips for using empathy and sympathy to care for others:

• Offer support.

When someone is going through a tough time, offer them your support. Let them know that you are there for them and that you care about them.

• Listen.

When someone is sharing their feelings with you, take the time to really listen. Don’t just wait for your turn to speak. Try to understand what they are saying and how they are feeling.

• Be present.

When you are with someone, be present. Put away your phone and give them your full attention. This will show that you care about them and that you are interested in what they have to say.

• Offer help.

If you can, offer help. If someone is struggling with something, see if you can do anything to help them. This could involve giving them a ride, doing their grocery shopping, or simply lending a listening ear.

• Follow up.

After you have offered your support, follow up with the person. Check-in with them to see how they are doing. This will show that you care about them and that you are interested in their well-being.

By using empathy and sympathy, you can show others that you care about them. These two responses can be used to offer support, understanding, and compassion to others.

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