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Louise Koeckhoven

Empathy vs. Sympathy

People always pride themselves on their amount of empathy, or they fear for the lack of it. Some people have too much empathy and thereby forget themselves, some people have a complete lack of it. But then, we also have sympathy, it seems that this concept is forgotten completely due to the Empathy hype. Could you describe the difference between the two? To be honest, I couldn’t. Therefore, hereby a small clarification plus a good, bad and ugly way the two manifest in (some of) our daily lives.

First, let’s start with some actual definitions from the Cambridge Dictionary. They say…

Empathy is…

the ability to share someone else’s feelings or expressions by imagining
what it would be like to be in that person’s situation

Sympathy is…

(an expression of) understanding and caring for someone else’s suffering

If you read them quickly, as I did at first, you won’t see that much difference. It is all about the feelings of other people and the way you react to them. In my understanding, however, the biggest difference is that with Empathy, you actually share the feelings with the other, you actually feel or sense their pain, suffering, happiness, etc. and with Sympathy, you express your understanding with those feelings. You acknowledge that someone else is in pain, and you care for their suffering, but you don’t feel them yourself.

So let’s see about those amazing (YEA) and bad (NAY) examples of both.

Yea… In a good sense, Empathy is nice for the people around you and yourself. When you enter a room and you can sense the mood when you talk to your friend and you can sense how he/she is doing when you try to sell something and you can sense what works and what doesn’t with your client. Then Empathy is just a silent helper to make you tune into what is happening and helps you form easy bonds with the people around you.

Nay… please don’t overload me with everyone’s emotions! Sometimes it is difficult to tone down your Empathy, and therefore you’ll be over-informed, your senses will be going crazy and you don’t know where your own feelings still play a part.

Yea… you are able to make other people feel like you understand them. They will like being around you, as they feel heard and understood. You’ll be able to not overrule or be to harsh to anyone who is sad and you’ll know when to hug them, take distance, buy them a gift or just talk about their emotions. However, you won’t actually feel their emotions, so you will never ‘take those emotions home with you’. You can be a good friend, partner, family member, but won’t be burdened by the feelings yourself.

Nay… don’t over-sympathize with anyone. Firstly, it can make people feel supported in their right to wallow even more when you say ‘ahhh that is so bad for you’. It might make them feel worse. You could also feel for them for a while, but then also try to cheer them up. Also, try to read what the other person needs, not how you’d like to receive sympathy. Some people actually like you to wallow with them, while others need you to make them smile and realize it is not all that bad.

So, which is better?
After reading the sections below, you might think that Sympathy is better than Empathy and I would partially agree with you. In my opinion, you’ll need Empathy to feel and read the room and the person you’re talking to. What does he/she need from you? And then you’ll use sympathy to make that person feel understood and really deal with their emotions and support them. However, you’ll need to leave those emotions with that person and situation, and therefore leave your Empathy for only the first bit.

Feel for, understand and support the person, but leave those emotions at the door and give space to your own again once you leave the room.

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